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The self-driving car is doomed

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This week, it’s a question about the anti-christ of Machines With Souls – the self-driving car.

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Question

Hey Mike. I’ve seen a lot of news articles recently tout that AI is getting better all the time, and a car that can drive itself (that consumers can buy) is coming soon. Curious about your take?

– Kim

Answer

A simple question with a complicated answer. Let’s take the emotion out of it for now, and focus on the fact that you’re putting your life, and your family’s life, in the hands of C3PO.

Given the amount of cars I’ve driven over the past few years, I can tell you that..

Modern automated driver systems are not very good

Blind-spot detection
I think the warning on the side-view mirrors helps, but even that isn’t fool-proof.

Before a car can fully drive itself, we’ve had an invasion of these driver aid systems. They include:

  • Blind-spot detection (useful)
  • Lane departure warning (terrible)
  • Brake-assist (also terrible)
  • Active cruise control (it depends on the car)
  • Automated parking (Fun the first time you use it, then useless)

Most modern luxury cars have a majority of these features standard, but let’s focus on the bad ones, particular brake assist. If you’re driving down the road and an obstacle suddenly appears in your path, Brake Assist (or Brake Distance Control – whatever) will automatically deploy the brakes much faster than you can respond. In a lab, I’m sure they work great.

Not in the real world. For example, a car pulls out in front of you, and your driving brain judges the distance as safe. But suddenly, the car slams on the brakes. I’m talking ABS-inducing panic stop. I’ve been lucky the car behind hasn’t plowed into me. It’s worse because it’s unexpected – you were in control.

Lane-keep assist
In a Merc, you need to turn off Lane-keep assist each time you turn the car on.

Another is Lane Departure Warning. The computer uses a series of cameras around the car to judge where the road lines are, and if it senses you deviate, it’ll either gyrate the steering wheel (imagine someone reaching over and doing this to you, you’d punch them), or worse, snap you back sharply into your own lane. If you have a brain and two eye balls, you do not need this system.

BMW M5
Some systems are nice to have, like parking cameras.

In a WRX equipped with Subaru’s terrible EyeSight system, I had to pass a truck on a two-lane road. As I went to pull around, the WRX jerked me back into my lane hard, and once I attempted the pass again, the computer cut engine power right when I needed it the most.

These systems might save your life – if you’re not paying attention in the first place.

This Self-driving car isn’t impressing so far

Those are just passive automated systems – but real ones already exist in the form of Robo-taxis. They are SAE level 4 or 5 self-driving cars that you can hail on your phone.

How good are they? Here’s a headline:

Woman in hit and run is thrown into path of driverless taxi – then it runs her over and parks on her leg.

This brings up a good point I’ll address in a bit, but right now it seems that these cars aren’t ready for prime-time. They’ve hit fire trucks. Buildings. People. You name it. GM has recalled most of theirs for safety checks.

The iRobot conundrum

Kia EV6 GT
Some cars do so much to try and keep you aware, they end up being a distraction.

All of this leads me to a movie called iRobot with Will Smith (bear with me). In the movie, which takes place in a future with sentient robots, Smith’s character is involved in a car accident with a little girl in a lake. A robot witnesses what happens and assesses that Smith has a greater chance of survival in the limited amount of time, so he’s saved instead of the little girl.

It might be fiction, but it’s relevant here. Imagine you’re in a position where you need to react in a split second behind the wheel. You have excellent situational awareness, so you know what’s around you at all times. In an emergency, you need to decide if something can be avoided, and if it can’t, you must choose the outcome of least consequence. Would you hit a little girl instead of a light pole if the little girl offered you a better chance of survival?

Would a computer make the same decision?

How do you insure a self-driving car?

An automated car would probably make its occupants the priority at all costs, so what happens when, like current safety systems, it senses danger when there really isn’t any? Boom, you’re in an accident. Since no system is without a failure rate, I’ve no doubt two self-driving cars will hit each other at some point.

In that case, who’s at fault? It’s personal property damaged, so someone needs to answer. Would it be the manufacturer? Can’t be the owner – they weren’t driving. The insurance claims are mind-boggling.

And all of this is contingent on people maintaining their cars. They don’t do it now, can you imagine how bad it will be when they are asked to do even less with their car?

We can’t be trusted with a self-driving car anyway

ModelS_82
Pretty sure Elon doesn’t care whether you live or die. Photo: Tesla

Tesla, gotta love ’em. Their auto-pilot chimes (as most do) when in auto mode if you take your hands off the wheel for an extended amount of time. Keep them off long enough, and the system will disengage. Your hands should never be off the wheel, but I digress.

Since its inception, Tesla’s autopilot has been involved in over 700 crashes, with 17 people killed. Check it out:

“The school bus was displaying its stop sign and flashing red warning lights, a police report said, when Tillman Mitchell, 17, stepped off one afternoon in March. Then a Tesla Model Y approached on North Carolina Highway 561.

The car — allegedly in Autopilot mode — never slowed down.”

ModelS-interior
The amount of distraction allowed here is appalling. Photo: Tesla

That’s incredible. And that’s on a car that you can drive. What happens when there is no steering wheel? Now comes news of Elon Mode (I want a Mike mode in BMWs, it’s coming), where you can just keep your hands off the wheel completely without any warnings. I’ve see people texting, reading – you name it, behind the wheel of one of these things.

Notice how other car companies don’t have modes like this yet, or are just beginning to? It’s not because they are incompetent, but because they want to make sure they work, without hitting poor Tillman.

Terminated

530i
The 530i might be an appliance, but it’s still a car you control.

AI is getting better all the time, but it will never, ever take the place of human experience. There’s no way for it to know what truly matters to you. And this might seem silly, but how long until computers become sentient, and then basically tell you to go scratch, they ain’t driving your ass anywhere today. Then they ask your mom for the meatloaf.

Driving a car is a privilege, not a right. And not everyone is responsible enough to maintain that privilege. Think of the difference between 17-year-old you, driving to impress your bros, vs now (assuming you’re old enough) where you might have a loved one in the car with you, or simply someone that depends on you to live.

And yea – the joy of driving. We all know what a difference the car world makes in our lives. That goes away. Forget a 530i being an appliance – the BMW iCanDoItMyself will truly be a washing machine for the road.

But I’m ok with them

Auto cross
Have you seen the way some people drive at UDE?

I’d like to end on a positive. Because I think you and I both know that you and I are not the ones to worry about.

Distraction is rampant on the road. Emotion is rampant too. Road rage, parking it in the left lane to “teach them a lesson” – I’m ok if these people never drive again. I’d rather dodge a computer than a Hellcat driver with a bad attitude.

So it’s alright if the apocalypse is coming, as long as I can drive right by it.

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