Tuesday, January 17, 2017

There will never be such a thing as a truly autonomous self-driving car.

The idea of autonomous self-driving cars has got to be one of the biggest Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that you can imagine for society. I think this video makes for a good teaching moment on why this is true.

The public’s fascination with autonomous self-driving cars is in large part driven by a mistaken assumption about how they work. Any truly autonomous vehicle will never be able to go much faster than 25 to 30 mph. The reason this is so has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the physics of how these autonomous vehicles navigate through traffic. The only way an autonomous vehicle can navigate is through a combination of Google maps stored in its memory combined with sensors which look at the traffic and other landmarks and objects around it. In other words, the car basically drives by looking at the bumper of the car in front of it. The YouTube video link is a good example of this phenomenon. But we humans don’t drive that way. We have a “look-ahead” ability that can see many cars ahead, and under the right road conditions, we can see traffic half a mile or more ahead. This gives a human driver a much larger time margin to make critical decisions in; a time margin that self-driving cars currently are not endowed with. This is what allows commuter traffic flow to hit 75/80 miles an hour on the freeway. But if a human was to drive using only the information that self-driving cars currently have to work from, i.e. just watching the bumper of the car in front of you, there would be no end of car wrecks before that human had gone even a mile. It’s this fact that self-driving cars do not have a “look-ahead” ability that will forever and always limit their speeds to 25 to 30 mph or less in traffic.

The simple and obvious way to get around this limitation is to endow self-driving cars with their own “look-ahead” ability. There are a couple of complementary proposals floating around on how to do this. The first is to implement a vehicle to vehicle communications protocol that allows cars ahead to talk to the cars behind letting them know of upcoming traffic conditions. The other proposal is to have a regional traffic control computer that monitors the traffic for a whole road system and then controls traffic flow locally by a series of radio cell towers communicating directly to the individual cars. If things like this were implemented, then commuter traffic speeds for self-driving cars could easily and safely approach those of the German Autobahn.

But the “gotcha” in all of this is that once these proposals become implemented your car is no longer autonomous!!! That is, before the popular vision of autonomous self-driving vehicles, that everyone seems to envision, can come into being, individual cars will have to fall under some kind of outside control. And as soon as this happens, the government will know where you are, where you’re going, and where you have been. This is the world of 1984 in spades.

The scary thing is, given the society we live in today, there are in fact no end of people who would gladly, and without a second thought, give up their privacy for the chance to ride in a self-driving car.

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