Self-driving cars, like the AI technology they are based on, seem always to be just tantalizingly beyond our reach at any given time. I have been hoping that self-driving cars become a reality because I am getting on in years and there is bound to come a time when it will not be safe for me to operate a vehicle, even though I have been accident and ticket-free my entire driving career, except for one fender-bender and one minor infraction, both of which took place over three decades ago when I was young, wild, and foolish. (No, not really. Both were rather boring events.)
The loss of driving privileges can result in a deep drop in a person’s independence, especially in the US which has pretty bad public transportation services. Having a self-driving car would provide older people or those with any issue that prevents them from driving, from being housebound. Of course, these cars are initially likely to be expensive but over time the prices should come down. The catch is that even though these cars have improved tremendously, they still seem to be not ready for prime time.
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has become, as a result of his relentless self-promotion, the face of self-driving cars. Interestingly, in the current race for the US senate seat in California, there is one wealthy candidate Dan O’Dowd who is self-funding his campaign and whose entire platform has been to argue that the self-driving AI technology that Tesla uses is terrible and dangerous to the public.
O’Dowd, a software entrepreneur with a 40-year history of working on military, aerospace and other commercial contracts, is running, rather, out of frustration at his fellow tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, whom he accuses of endangering road safety with a driver assistance software package he’s put in his Tesla electric cars.
Here is a campaign ad that he has put out showing all the failures of the Tesla self-driving system
O’Dowd’s career has been in creating technology that he claims seeks to never fail and cannot be hacked so he is knowledgeable about the issue. He thinks that the government should be much more demanding of this technology.
But O’Dowd is also unapologetic about being a single-issue candidate. His mission, he says, is to ensure that government regulators become much tougher with the “move fast and break things” ethos that has inspired Musk and many other tech pioneers over the past two decades. He’s spent $650,000 on advertising so far and seems poised to spend a lot more over the next six weeks.
And, in his mind, it’s not just about Musk. O’Dowd believes that the problems he’s documented with Tesla’s “full self-driving” software package – problems that, according to publicly available video footage, have caused vehicles to veer unexpectedly into the wrong lane, turn the wrong way, crash into poles and endanger other road users – are emblematic of a broader and increasingly serious problem.
O’Dowd insisted that his campaign had nothing to do with commercial self-interest. Rather, he said, he found Tesla’s “full self-driving” software package more alarming than anything else in commercial use because it was, in his words, “amazingly terrible” – a car guidance system that, according to his analysis, goes wrong every eight minutes, whereas similarly experimental guidance systems run by competitors including the Google subsidiary Waymo typically go tens of thousands of miles before encountering problems. O’Dowd was similarly dismissive of the notion, promoted by Tesla, that such problems can be fixed by patching the software with online upgrades.
His analysis is far from a consensus position in the industry. Many experts say that everyone is struggling to crack the problem of producing a reliable self-driving car and that the problem of cybersecurity – making sure a bad actor cannot gain control of a fleet of tens of thousands of cars through their operating software – is a particularly vexing one across the board.
Some have argued that picking on Tesla is a little unfair since all the companies are struggling with similar issues.
It seems like until there is much improvement in the technology, fully self-driving cars will not be an option for ordinary consumers. What might happen in the interim is some kind of half-way measure where the cars will mostly drive on their own but must have a human at the wheel to override the system if needed. This may require a new category of driver’s license. At present, licenses note if you have special needs to operate the vehicle, like wearing glasses. Perhaps there could be a category of license that allows people who are not able to fully operate a vehicle to only ‘drive’ self-driving cars that have such a manual override.
There are not many restrictions on driving, at least in the US. Once you get your license, getting it renewed is very easy with no further tests required, other than a vision test. I learned to drive using standard transmission cars (those were the only ones in Sri Lanka at the time) that had three pedals, clutch, brake, and accelerator. The left leg operated the clutch and the right leg was for the brake and accelerator. As a result of my polio, my left leg was weaker than my right but it was not a problem when it came to operating the clutch. After I came to the US, I have driven only automatic transmission cars and so the left leg has become unnecessary for driving, which is a good thing because with age, that leg has become weaker. I would never drive a standard transmission car now since I do not think it would be safe. But my driver’s license has no restriction saying that I should only drive automatic transmission cars.
Having restrictions that take into account a driver’s limitations seems reasonable. Having similar restrictions that take into account a car’s limitations seems equally reasonable.