Let the Robot Drive

My feature on autonomous vehicles is the cover story in this month’s Wired. You can find the story here.

The last time I was in a self-driving car—Stanford University’s “Junior,” at the 2008 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems—the VW Passat went 25 miles per hour down two closed-off blocks. Its signal achievement seemed to be stopping for a stop sign at an otherwise unoccupied intersection. Now, just a few years later, we are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement on a busy public highway—a stunning demonstration of just how quickly, and dramatically, the horizon of possibility is expanding. “This car can do 75 mph,” Urmson says. “It can track pedestrians and cyclists. It understands traffic lights. It can merge at highway speeds.” In short, after almost a hundred years in which driving has remained essentially unchanged, it has been completely transformed in just the past half decade.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 23rd, 2012 at 9:54 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “Let the Robot Drive”

  1. Omri Says:

    Once we collectively decide to use self-driving cars, the question then becomes why those cars should turn rubber wheels on flat blacktop.

    Put the same vehicles on light-duty steel tracks, and instead of steering you just have to use remote control to configure switches ahead of you on your trip. That greatly simplifies collision avoidance systems and makes us all safer.

  2. Biks Says:

    Omri, what you describe looks like the CargoMover from Siemens except for the lack of passenger transport permission. But, getting such a permission for railways is much harder than for street transportation due to the higher safety standards. You know, railway fatalities cause headlines, street fatalities cause statistics.

    But I’m afraid it’s still a long way to go until car manufacturers get a general permission to sell self-driven cars, i.e., cars without an operator to blame for accidents.

  3. Obbie Z Says:

    If the car becomes a rolling computer, what happens when the computer crashes?

    Those of us who have owned computers and cars know that systems fail. A system failure in an computer hurtling down the road at 70+mph can be catastrophic. Murphy’s law says that such a failure is inevitable, but I see no discussion of planning for such a contingency.

  4. ScottF Says:

    @Obbie Z: What happens when someone hurtling down the road at 70+mph has a heart attack? I’m not trying to be sarcastic. I think a large part of the discussion is exactly that: Which is more dependable? A computer or a human?

  5. Eric McClure Says:

    “We are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement….”

    Even the machines have lead feet!

  6. Brad Templeton Says:

    I enjoyed Traffic, but when I was reading it, at the end of almost every section my thought was, “and all this gets majorly changed when the robocars come.” Glad to see you finally got to see the car at Google (I wanted to say hi but missed you that day) and perhaps at some point you will have to do a revised version of the book.

    While sometimes I suspect the big effects don’t come until the more distant future when the majority of cars are robocars, but there have been more research I’ve seen suggesting that even a modest number of the cars, making the right nudges, could begin helping even sooner. While people could command their cars (at least in a free world) to do the irrational things that drivers do today, there just isn’t the same motive to do so — in fact the rider may not even be looking up or care, since they are getting work done and are in less of a hurry, preferring a comfortable ride with few distractions to a slightly faster one.

  7. Lars Says:

    I’ve been looking at Brad’s website as well and I’m a little more bullish about the speed of transition to driverless technology. Historically, large infrastructures (and the ICE based transportation infrastructure may be the largest in history) change very slowly once established. Once the begin to change significantly, however, most users are forced (or incentivized) to move with the rest of the herd. In this particular case the growing costs of the existing system, potential efficiency of its (driverless) alternative and, most importantly, emerging pathways that lead from one to the other, suggest that a transition may be coming our way.

    My bet is it begins in earnest 10 years from now and takes about 15 years after that to be fairly complete (though far from mature). Damn, I wish I had $10,000 to put on it. Thanks again for the great article!

  8. Bridget Says:

    I really liked this article. I’m torn between technology and people. I love ’em both. It’s frightening to think of a system failure without a real person being there to step in and manually take over in an emergency. I also read this article today that discusses vehicle technology issues:

  9. driving lessons in gloucester Says:

    I think that there would be like an auto pilot override so that if the computer crashes you can disengage autopilot and steer it to saftey.But I think the biggest problem would be if you had a mixture of robot drivers and human drivers I think that the humans are more likely to make more errors than the robots.

  10. Kim Says:

    Odd how these visions of the future always have cars traveling along sparsely populated highways. In the here and now, and in the foreseeable future, there are no sparsely populated highways, the real problem is capacity. Given that we have massive congestion due to lack of capacity, the private car is a very real waste of space. We need smarter solutions, we know that car is a failed transport system, so we need to go back and look at things we know work rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. We need to look again at mass transit systems and cycling as a far more effective means of getting about our crowded transport networks. We know it works!

  11. gpsman Says:

    I don’t think a computer can drive better than a human, they just drive as humans should, but won’t.

    No emotion. No intermediate destination injections (I’ve GOT to get in front of that truck before my exit/make it through that stale green light, ad infinitum).

    Still, the main issue seems likely to remain operator error. Fools with unlimited imagination still seem to be fastest growing segment of the population.

  12. Vicky Says:

    We can say that new concepts are coming day-by-day and most of them are for the benefit of human beings. But total control should not be shifted directly to the computer. Manual override should be there and let’s hope best for everyone.

  13. Michelle Says:

    I’m very curious about how driverless cars could affect carsharing. Right now, options for passenger car travel are having your own car (and paying for and its parking 24/7) calling/hailing a cab (and paying for both car and driver), or joining a carshare and trekking over to the closest available car (paying with your own extra travel time). If a driverless car could come pick you up and take you to your destination, then disappear, would it be a better substitute for car ownership?

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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