Op-Ed: Releasing Totally Driverless Vehicles On Public Streets Is Suicidal

A few days ago, I seriously damaged my smartphone. So, while I was waiting for the service guys to call me back and tell me if it was salvageable, I had to revert to an old, not-so-smart cell from a few years back that was retired in a drawer.

Once charged, it worked like a charm. As a phone, that is, because it couldn’t perform the rest of the functions that even a low-price modern smartphone can, like video calls, internet browsing, sending and receiving emails… you get the drift.

Now, I’m old enough to have grown with no cell at all (got my first one, a Nokia, on 1995), so I surely know I can live without it. The question is, do I want to?

The answer is no. I’ve become accustomed to a large, high-res touchscreen that enables me to stay connected no matter where I am and do things that, in 1995, would sound like science fiction. Why, even in The Matrix they used an old Nokia phone that’s just been reissued. For all their creativity, the writers couldn’t imagine how, just eight years later, Steve Jobs would change our lives forever with the first iPhone.

While I was waiting for that call, I read a couple of news I found to be very disturbing. First of all, Uber had begun operating its fleet of autonomous trucks in Arizona, and second, General Motors announced that it will start producing the fully autonomous Cruise AV next year.

I don’t know which of the two got my spine tingling the most: the fact that large freighters, weighing lots of tons, were driving themselves on the highway or that a passenger car with no driver controls at all will soon roam city streets?

For someone who has been around since computer’s HDDs were 4-5 GBs in size, dialing up an internet connection took about half an hour or so and could go for a swim until a page reloaded, I shouldn’t be that worried. It’s not that I’m a Luddite – quite the opposite, in fact, as I embrace all new technologies that make my life easier.

Even when it comes to cars, I don’t really have a problem with dual-clutch transmissions. Actually, a Porsche test driver once told me in Weissach, while we was casually sliding around at the test track and I was holding on for dear life, that he posted fastest laps on the Nürburgring with a PDK-equipped 911 than with a manual.

My first experience with a navigation system, on the other hand, was far from ideal: the female voice kept repeating that I should turn right, which would have landed me in an Italian riverbed, thus we ended up fetching the good ole map. Nowadays, though, they operate flawlessly, and I can rely on a navi to instruct me how to get to an unknown destination.

The thing is, I can’t rely on an AI to get me anywhere. I’ve traveled by plane more times than I care to remember and on everything from a 747 to a single-engine Pilatus with canvas seats. Of course, I felt safer on the newer, high-tech ones with their double and triple redundancy controls and systems – plus, their seats were much more comfortable, not to mention the food and beverages.

Statistically, flying is the safest way of traveling. Moreover, a computer is less prone to making mistakes than a human and is immune to fatigue, emotional stress or any other thing that can negatively affect a human being.

Now, would you travel on a fully automated plane with no pilots behind the controls? If not, why should you trust the AI of a car that has no controls at all? Would you let your children board a school bus with no driver and no steering wheel? That’s not a rhetorical question but one you’ll have to answer soon enough if manufacturers have it their way.

I don’t expect AI to take over the world any time soon like Skynet or anything like that, but I also don’t trust it to put my, or anyone else’s, life in its (virtual) hands without an actual human to supervise and take over if something goes wrong.

Thus, I find it hard to believe that General Motors will release that fully autonomous Cruise next year, as neither the infrastructure nor the legislation that would allow for such a vehicle to operate safely are yet in place.

If they go ahead and do it, others will follow suit and then, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Having no Skype or email while on the move is an inconvenience, not a matter of life and death; having no driver could very well be.

PS: No sooner had I finished this article than news of an Uber self-driving Volvo being involved in a fatal accident broke. The driver obviously didn’t see the pedestrian – but neither did the AI, which was operational at that time. The company has suspended its program.

Maybe this will make GM CEO Mary Bara rethink the Cruise AV and put it on hold. And if this doesn’t happen, perhaps the DoT should step in and bar self-driving vehicles from public roads until the technology proves itself under scrutiny in a multitude of scenarios first.

  • Zandit75

    I think this tech is being rushed to market too quickly. There’s still too many glitches, and the public is too dumb to consider monitoring the tech, even when they’re told to. We’ve become this dumbed down society that believes everything we hear or see on the internet, and won’t listen to the common sense that is in our slowly dying brains. We no longer look when crossing the roads because a computer in the palm of our hands has us enthralled. We no longer “need” to physically look over our shoulders when changing lanes because a computer tells us it’s clear.
    While a small part of the world is embracing of this new tech, society as a whole is not ready for it to be just thrown at us all at once.

    BTW, for the writers benefit, your comment about the Matrix is pretty wrong. There was no need to predict the tech of the future since the Matrix was designed to make the humans think it was 1999, the same year the actual film was released!!

    • Six Thousand Times

      People have trouble today driving their non-autonomous cars.

    • Andreas Tsaousis

      You are almost right: in the virtual world it was supposed to be 1999, but in the real world it was closer to 2199, as stated by Morpheus. They even had spaceships and exoskeleton fighting suits, so a smartphone wouldn’t be out of place. Plus, if you’ve watched The Animatrix, you’ll know that human civilization was pretty much advanced, having made human-like robots (which eventually was its undoing) and scorching the sky before they lost the war with the machines.
      Then again, no one expected the iPhone would change our lives so drastically; at the time of its launch, Nokia’s then CEO laughed at it and said something along the lines of “Who on Earth would want a phone without keys?”. Apparently, everyone – and that’s how Nokia went from being a market leader to a contractor making cells for Microsoft.

      As is often the case with science fiction, which coincidentally I am a big fan of, even the greatest writers can predict the big things (like, say, AI, space travel, nanotechnology or colonizing other planets) but not the smaller ones that, almost imperceptibly, end up having a huge impact on our lives.

  • Jayen DeHaart

    Planes do actually fly themselves for the most part. A bicyclist dies and suddenly the world takes notice. No matter the fact that bicyclists are killed constantly by human driven cars and the press barely mentions it.

    Try driving down the road with plain old cruise control. Cars zoom up and then drop back and do it over and over again. Human drivers are still overall worse than basic/simple AI. I don’t think AI is infallible but I would trust a car driven via AI than via any 18-30-50 year old phone addict.

    • Six Thousand Times

      Killing bicyclists would only be a wonderful byproduct of autonomous cars.

    • BlackPegasus

      That’s basically my argument in a nutshell. Apples for apples, the intelligent machines makes fewer mistakes. This op-ed is indicative of the reactionary nonsense you’ll hear from people whom are afraid to embrace change. Meanwhile 32,000 people will DIE on North American roads this year………. and the year after that! Yet there are no breaking news stories on CNN nor FOX NEWS of humans behaving stupidly behind the wheel of cars. Sadly, this accident made the front pages of CNN and Fox with the sole purpose of alarming those still stuck in the 20th Century. Looks like it worked 😒

    • Ch!mp

      Exactly the opinion I was looking for. Deathly accidents unfortunately happen on a daily basis, and 90% of the time, a motorized vehicle is involved. Therefore, you could conclude that motorized vehicles are dangerous. They, however, are not the prime reason for these accidents to happen. The prime reason is the human factor in these heavy motorized vehicles.
      By now, multiple organisations have driven millions of kilometres with autonomous vehicles. I’m pretty sure that, if you compare the amount of deathly accidents per 10.000 kilometres driven by an AI-controlled vehicle and the amount of accidents per 10.000 kilometres driven by normal (human) controlled vehicle, the AI is the most safe driver.
      Also, if you read articles about AI, most programmers clearly indicate that a cyclist or pedestrian still is one of the core problems for an AI-driven system, since they can change direction at a whim, opposed to a motorized vehicle. So again, the human factor is something that (for now) we cannot program into a computer. In a few years, with breakthroughs such as machine learning/deep learning, I believe AI will become a far better driver than a human one.

      • Six Thousand Times

        And that pedestrian in this instance did exactly that-stepped in front of the car with no time for a human or a machine to react.

  • Six Thousand Times

    While these timetables do indeed sound too hurried, I fully expect AI to be smarter than the average human driver within oh, 10-15 years. And those 747s you’ve flown on already fly themselves, even if the pilots still have to take off and land.

    • brn

      Agreed. We’re very early in Level 4, and even Level 3. It needs work. It will continue to improve. I look forward to it.

      My bigger concern isn’t how smart a self-driving car is. It’s around people maliciously messing with them. I’m sure that’ll get better too, but it’ll take longer.

      • Six Thousand Times

        That’ll revolve around how smart the AI is to recognise malice and respond accordingly, I think. I’d have to think also that the AI is being taught this. At least I’d hope so.

    • Andreas Tsaousis

      Planes don’t fly themselves. Not just 747s, which are quite old as a design, but even the modern ones with their ‘glass’ cockpits and ultra high-tech systems like the ‘Dreamliner’. They do have an autopilot, but there are always two highly trained humans at the controls. Why, not even trains, which ride on rails, operate without humans.
      The technology might be there alright, but there must be someone to make the decisions and take responsibility, and that someone isn’t an AI but a trained human being.

      Would you fly in a plane with no pilots on board? I know I wouldn’t…

      Mind you, that’s for something that’s been around too long, not the self-driving cars that have just a few years of testing behind them. They are simply not ready, yet they are rushed in by automakers or companies like Waymo and Uber. Additionally, there’s no legislation in place yet, which is a big issue when it comes to who takes the blame in case of an accident like the one that, sadly, happened in Arizona.

      I’m no stuck in the 20th century, just being pragmatic. I have no doubt that, one day, we’ll all be riding around in fully autonomous cars. Automakers better make sure they don’t hurry and be absolutely certain about their tech before they make it operational, or else they risk the backlash that will ensue if something goes wrong.

      • Six Thousand Times

        Your emphasis ought to be on the fact that the pilots are trained and not just a couple jokers who’d rather be tweeting or snapchating. Oh, and the avionics on the newer 747s have seen upgrades since 1969.

  • brn

    Do we know it was caused by a self-driving car? It’s possible that she put herself into a position where no driver (human or computer) could have avoided the impact.

    I have noticed that when it comes to autonomous cars performing dangerous acts, Uber is at the top of the list. Maybe they’re the problem.

    • Craig

      We don’t know yet. That’s true. But I wonder… would a self-driving car sacrifice itself to save a human? A human driver might smash into a telephone pole on purpose if that’s what it took to NOT kill someone. But would a computer?

      • Police Say Uber Is Likely Not at Fault for Its Self-Driving Car Fatality in Arizona

      • brn

        Sacrifice itself? I hope so. Sacrifice the passenger? I hope not. If my car is going to sacrifice me over a pedestrian, I’m not buying it.

        • Craig

          You wouldn’t deliberately smash into a telephone pole to avoid killing a kid crossing the street?

          • brn

            If I thought it’d kill me, probably not. If I felt like I had a good chance of surviving, probably. If it were my own kid, yes.

          • Status

            Craig, I don’t believe that drivers are making that conscious decision about WHERE to crash in the moment a crash appears imminent. I would think that stopping the car would take priority in their minds, but in stopping a car by avoiding the child, their mind has to entertain the intended path of travel and where it leads.

            If it’s like a chess game where a human players is charting out 2 or 3 possible moves ahead of the opponent, then such predictive mapping and travel algorithms for an autonomous car would need to calculate the best possible route (of thousands of possible routes) with given eventualities. I say routes not like a detour across town to avoid the accident, but a route detour of 2 or 3 metres might be all that’s needed to avoid hitting that child at speed.


    • brn

      GM’s statements are a little misleading. They’re going to produce the vehicles. Chances are, you won’t be able to buy one.

  • klowik

    autonomous cars only benefit the public transport companies, not private owners.. private buyers would rather drive the car themselves.

    • brn

      Someday, I’m not going to be able to drive. When that day comes, an autonomous car will benefit this private owner.

      • Six Thousand Times

        Absolutely. Plus, I’ll be able to go out and drink and take my own car home. 😉

  • Someone needs to read up how many airplane crashes were caused by human error and how many by the hardware / software. Of course autonomous vehicles will get in accidents, of course people will die, BUT the number will be drastically less than in a human driven traffic. Stop with this populist bullcrap.

  • Enter Ranting

    The point of Uber for me is that it provides drivers with a paycheck. I’m not interested in riding in a driverless car, where all the money goes to the company.

  • MarketAndChurch

    That’s why we gotta champion and push automakers towards putting all of their focus into developing level two autonomous driving vehicles, and making those work really well. That’s all we’ll really need for the next decade. Anything greater than that should be put on hold because there isn’t a system in place to gauge which systems should be allowed on public roads, and which ones shouldn’t. This would be a lot easier if all the automakers came together to develop autonomous driving tech together and create a set standard for the industry so that we know that an autonomous setup inside a Mazda won’t be inferior to one inside a GM or Waymo product. But that’s not the case because everyone’s rushing to be the first one on the market, and for the bragging rights that come with that.

  • smartacus

    Even the evil AR-15 took longer to score its first kill.

  • tkindred

    Autonomous vehicles are the future and there is no stopping it. Thank goodness there are forward thinking engineers, planners and others who understand transportation, the problems we face in the future, the thousands of lives that would be saved, and countless hours which would be freed up while commuting in dense urban areas.

  • Andrew Riles

    I think we are at a dangerous point when it comes to self driving cars….because they can handle some situations well, they create a false sense of security for the operator, leading them to pay less or no attention to the road….then a scenario comes up that the car can’t handle, and the operator doesn’t resume control, with the result being an accident….

    Personally, I’d rather see the tech used like ESP and AEB is…..it sits idle until it senses the driver needs assistance, and then steps in to help….

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