Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Yorker: Longread on Driverless Cars

If you can get past the inside baseball history of this New Yorker piece on driverless cars it starts to get into the far more interesting and impactful stuff than merely the technology.  Remember that cars were once invented and were a novelty but many of our cities weren't ready to adapt to them or to fully gave themselves over to the new technology to a destructive extent that disrupted the economy of place.

And that's what most engineers don't get or care to get.  They're too focused on the technology, rather than policy.  The could vs the should.  And to their defense, that's their job and its self-governance's role to determine the appropriate adoption of a new technology (smarter cities curbed the car more quickly than others).  That's comforting to hear Google founder Sergey Brin actually be the first involved to discuss the impact rather than the technology:
“As you look outside, and walk through parking lots and past multilane roads, the transportation infrastructure dominates,” Brin said. “It’s a huge tax on the land.” Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, he said. The rest of the time, they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”
The other critically interesting point is when it gets into mistakes and perhaps more of a barrier, the potential for mistakes:  liability.  In this way, the fallibility and liability of the driver is actually a buffer for car companies:
Still, sooner or later, a driverless car will kill someone. A circuit will fail, a firewall collapse, and that one defect in three hundred thousand will send a car plunging across a lane or into a tree. “There will be crashes and lawsuits,” Dean Pomerleau said. “And because the car companies have deep pockets they will be targets, regardless of whether they’re at fault or not. It doesn’t take many fifty- or hundred-million-dollar jury decisions to put a big damper on this technology.”