Sunday, June 1, 2014

Self-Driving Cars?

Why does the self-driving car have rear-view mirrors?  Just asking.


I wrote my first Patent on a self-driving car back in the early 1990's.   I was working at a firm that represented IMRA, a research company affiliated with Toyota.  Back then, self-driving cars existed, but they were primitive things.  The University of Pennsylvania, as I recall, had one - actually a box truck - that could slowly drive around campus, guided by a host of computers that took up most of the cargo area of the truck.

Back then, self-driving cars seemed more like science fiction than fact, even if some primitive versions were already on the road.

NHTSA sponsored a lot of this early research.  Since then, DARPA has sponsored a number of competitions.  And of course, Google has been aggressive about building real-world driverless cars, which may hit the market in a decade or so - perhaps sooner.

Of course, such technological innovation spurs controversy.   Old-timers will say, "Suppose the computer goes haywire and then the car crashes?"

And old people who use terms like haywire should probably just shuffle off the mortal coil and be done with it.

Yes, there will be risks with this new technology.   There are risks with the existing technology.  We've already embraced a personal transportation system, known as the automobile, that kills about 30,000 or more people a year.  This is a pretty staggering death rate, in a nation of 300 million people.  It is only about 0.01% annually, but over a decade, this is 0.1% of the population.  Look at it another way, over your lifetime (80 years) there is a nearly 1% chance you will be killed in an automobile.

Injuries are far more likely.   About 2.3 million people are injured in car crashes every year.  That's nearly 1% of the population every damn year.  Over a decade, about 7.87% of the population is injured in automobile accidents.  Over a lifetime of 80 years, that's about 63%!  In other words, the odds are, you will be injured in a car crash, in your lifetime, even if you aren't in a "self-driving car".

And given how bad most drivers are, these statistics are not surprising.   A self-driving car will never text while driving, drink while driving, or get into a road rage situation.   The failure from a self-driving car will be caused by mechanical breakdowns (failures in car components or sensors) or software issues.  And I suspect the failure rate will be a lot less than with human-driven cars.  And of course, when a self-driving car fails, we all know who will be sued - the deep pockets of the car manufacturer.

Highway death and injury numbers are down in recent years.   Your government - you know, the one that "regulates you to death" and is instituting a "nanny state" has been plowing a lot of money into highway safety over the decades.   And it has paid off.  Cars with multiple airbags, stability control, anti-lock brakes, and the like, are far safer than the death-traps of the 1950's and 1960's.

In other words, your government has done you a favor.  Try thanking them sometime, instead of bashing them.

In fact, much of the impetus for self-driving cars came from NHTSA, and we are already seeing payoff from that investment.  Lane-tracking systems and lane-change detectors, as well as radar cruise control, are early real-world results of this research.   You can buy cars today with these features.

Simply stated, the carnage on our nation's highways has been a concern for a long time now.  And the powers-that-be realize that if our transportation system is to thrive and grow, we need to figure out how to make it safer.  As more and more people hit the road, the more dangerous our roadways become.  A growing population will result in more traffic.  Without some improvements in technology, the rate of death and injury would have skyrocketed over the years.   With safer cars, death and injury rates have gone down in recent years - this despite increased traffic.

So, self-driving cars may be the next big thing.   Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in a decade or so.   Many States have already passed laws allowing for such vehicles.

How we use cars and how we relate to them will be radically different in the self-driving car world.

With self-driving cars, things like car-sharing may become practical.    Need a car?   You click on your smartphone (finally! a use for smart phones!) and one drives to your location.   No need to reserve one or walk to a designated parking location.

Speaking of parking, self-driving cars can drive away and find a place to park, perhaps blocks or miles from your location.   Or maybe they just keep driving, until called upon by a user to pick them up.

Want a pizza delivered?   The restaurant owner may just shove one in a self-driving car, and you pick it up at the curb by your house.

Owning cars may change, and the idea of having a "luxury" car or a car different from others may become obsolete.

And of course, some folks will resist this change, insisting that they drive all the time, and causing most of the accidents out there.  Some may even try to sabotage self-driving cars, cutting them off and trying to stage accidents with them, in order to sue the company who owns them.   Of course, cameras on cars may record such data, rendering fake personal injury suits a thing of the past.

Eventually, driving itself may be outlawed - perhaps in certain downtown regions or on high-speed highways.   Society may devolve into "haves" and "have nots" - with the latter being forced to drive their own cars, but only on  secondary roadways and the like (we are seeing this already in Texas, with privately owned toll roads!).

Terrorists may use self-driving cars to do away with the suicide bomber.  Load a self-driving car with dynamite and program it to drive to a market or a mosque, and then set the explosive off with remote control or by GPS.   Sensors may have to be installed in cars to detect whether a rider is present - or detect the smell of explosives or weapons.   It gets complicated.   But not impossible.

What about mass-transit?  If self-driving cars can pack onto the roadways and drive more efficiently, mass-transit may be a thing of the past.  Rather than riding a bus or subway with hundreds of other people, you would just get into your transportation pod and program your destination.   Subway tunnels might be renovated for use with self-driving cars, and the rattling trains of yesteryear junked.

Will self-driving cars be a reality?   Well, we've been betting on this technology for decades, now.  And it seems to be demonstrated as practical, from a technical point of view.   Like with most technology, the biggest obstacle to implementation may be social rather than technological.


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