mfioretti: driverless car*

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  1. It’s a multifaceted problem. Some drivers haven’t been educated as to how to properly share the road with cyclists, some cyclists don’t know how they’re supposed to behave, and infrastructure in many places doesn’t facilitate peaceful coexistence on the same roadways. Autonomous vehicles, with their advanced sensing capabilities and predictable, programmed behavior, offer the opportunity to help change that. However, we’re increasingly learning that A.I. can amplify our own biases and human failings. If humans aren’t doing a good job of detecting and preventing vehicle-bike collisions, how can we create machines that do the job even better?

    One solution presented by Ford, Tome Software, and Trek Bicycle at CES last month is a concept known as bicycle-to-vehicle communications. Instead of just autonomous vehicles (or all motorized vehicles) on the road being able to wirelessly communicate their position and intentions with one another, bikes would be able to join the party. The proposed technology would be brand agnostic, something any cyclist could affix to herself or her bike. The key safety aspect of this connectivity would be that drivers would be alerted when a cyclist is nearby. It’s similar, although potentially a step above, a concept presented by Volvo in 2014 that would work through tech embedded in a rider’s helmet. Tome plans to hone its software, which could then be licensed out to vehicles, apps, bike accessories, and car accessories, at the Mcity autonomous driving test facility at the University of Michigan over the next year.
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  2. This is probably the key rule, because a simple understanding of economics makes it hard to avoid reaching the conclusion that AVs will result in a ton more driving. If they cut the cost of driving by 80 percent as anticipated, that's supposed to add 60 percent of the traffic to city streets that are already at capacity. That is what has gotten former mayor Bloomberg up in arms, proposing new regulation and policy to avert disaster.

    But it’s actually worse than 60 percent, for a number of reasons. The biggest one is called induced traffic, or the fundamental law of congestion. If you ignore induced demand, 60 percent more trips are not a problem, as long as we have swarming. Elon Musk tells us that a driving lane full of swarming AVs can handle 3 times as many cars as it does today. So, problem solved, until you realize that, these days, traffic congestion is the principal constraint to driving. Because driving is already so subsidized, we do it as much as we can, unless we are punished by traffic.

    This becomes especially alarming when we realize that AVs will make driving cheaper in two ways: money and time. You will pay less per mile, and won’t mind sitting in gridlock as you work or watch cat videos.

    The right solution, is to make the streets what you want them to be. Since cars will be more efficient, you can commit to no increase in driving lanes. Maybe even get rid of a bunch! You can convert parking lanes to bike lanes and express bus lanes, which will still be needed as the AVs reach their natural state of equilibrium, which we know, from the law of induced traffic, will be determined by congestion.

    Now, I’ve been fighting sprawl for a quarter century, with limited success, and everyone knows that it’s a function of four main factors: highways, mortgage programs, local subsidies, and racism. But mostly highways. Before the car, land development was mostly nodal, mostly around rail stops, and therefore walkable. Only with the car did the entire landscape take on wasteful, unwalkable, disconnected forms that now, more than anything else, characterize American life.

    But there is recent good news, which is that cities and towns have begun to figure out that sprawl does not pay for itself. As many of you with sprawling cities can attest, the tax revenue from low-density sprawl is not enough to replace roads and pipes once they fail. For this reason, we can hope that the next great inducement to national sprawl, cheap autonomous vehicles, will not have as great an impact as universal car ownership did. But this is only a hope, which is why smart growth policy is needed.

    It sounds implausible, but there is a very real worry that AV providers will ask to buy certain city streets, or certain segments of city streets, and cities will take the money. This has precedents—like Chicago leasing it’s on-street parking to Morgan Stanley for 75 years. We need to remember that your city’s streets are its principal public spaces and, especially downtown, they perform many more jobs than just moving vehicles. They are places to walk, bike, access buildings, dine, converse, grow trees, protest, and much more, and they belong to us all.

    I particularly like this recent quote from Adam Gopnik: “Cities are their streets. Streets are not a city’s veins, but its neurology, its accumulated intelligence.” Never sell that.

    Another ownership issue has to with all the traffic data collected by Uber, which cities can benefit from in many ways—for example knowing which way to send a fire truck. Like Uber, AVs will represent a viable business model only by running on public streets. Sharing full data would seem a small price to pay for that privilege.
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  3. Google Photos users upload photos snapped under all kinds of imperfect conditions. Given the number of images in the massive database, a tiny chance of mistaking one type of great ape for another can become a near certainty.

    Google parent Alphabet and the wider tech industry face versions of this problem with even higher stakes, such as with self-driving cars. Together with colleague Baishakhi Ray, an expert in software reliability, Román is probing ways to constrain the possible behaviors of vision systems used in scenarios like self-driving cars. Ray says there has been progress, but it is still unclear how well the limitations of such systems can be managed. “We still don’t know in a very concrete way what these machine learning models are learning,” she says.
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  4. The key concept to grasp with driverless cars is that they truly redefine all of our assumptions and preconceived notions. Combustion engines are replaced by two small electric motors, the dashboard and steering wheel are unnecessary, and safety features are redundant when the cars don’t crash.

    Driverless vehicles are simply rooms sitting atop an all-electric drivetrain and rechargeable battery pack with a few extra visual, laser or radar sensors.
    Tesla Powertrain

    In a Tesla Model S there are only 18 moving parts compared to the 1500 in an average internal combustion engine vehicle. As such it’s predicted that by 2025 all new vehicles produced will be 100% electric and cost much less than the cheapest combustion engine vehicles sold today.
    Tags: , by M. Fioretti (2018-01-07)
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  5. Traditional urbanism evolved over millennia to meet human needs. The adoption of AVs should not be allowed to replace time-tested places with something that would probably make our lives worse.
    Tags: by M. Fioretti (2017-10-27)
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  6. where does all this leave tech startups? Struggling, and probably hoping to be acquired by a larger company, ideally one of the Big Five. While some breakout startups will still doubtless arise, they’ll be far rarer than they were during the boom years.

    We’re already seeing this. Consider Y Combinator, by all accounts the gold standard of startup accelerators, famously harder to get into than Harvard. Then consider its alumni. Five years ago, in 2012, its three poster children were clearly poised to dominate their markets and become huge companies: Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe. And so it came to pass.

    Fast forward to today, and Y Combinator’s three poster children are… unchanged. In the last six years YC have funded more than twice as many startups as they did in their first six — but I challenge you to name any of their post-2011 alumni as well-positioned today as their Big Three were in 2012. The only one that might have qualified, for a time, was Instacart. But Amazon broke into that game with Amazon Fresh, and, especially, their purchase of Whole Foods.

    From here on in, the existing tech titans will accrue ever more power, and startups will be increasingly hard-pressed to compete. This is not a good thing. Big businesses already have too much power. Amazon and Google are so dominant that there are loud calls for them to be regulated. Fake news shared on Facebook may have swayed the most recent presidential election.

    What’s more, startups bring fresh approaches and thinking, while hidebound behemoths stagnate in their old ways of doing things. But for the next five to ten years, thanks to the nature of the new technologies coming down the pipe, those behemoths will just keep accruing ever more power — until, we can hope, the pendulum swings back again.
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  7. The morbid focus on the trolley problem creates, to some irony, a meta-trolley problem. If people (especially lawyers advising companies or lawmakers) start expressing the view that “we can’t deploy this technology until we have a satisfactory answer to this quandry” then they face the reality that if the technology is indeed life-saving, then people will die through their advised inaction who could have been saved, in order to be sure to save the right people in very rare, complex situations. Of course, the problem itself speaks mostly about the difference between “failure to save” and “overt action” to our views of the ethics of harm.

    It turns out the problem has a simple answer which is highly likely to be the one taken. In almost every situation of this sort, the law already specifies who has the right of way, and who doesn’t. The vehicles will be programmed to follow the law, which means that when presented with a choice of hitting something in their right-of-way and hitting something else outside the right-of-way, the car will obey the law and stay in its right-of-way. The law says this, even if it’s 3 people jaywalking vs. one in the oncoming lane. If people don’t like the law, they should follow the process to change it. This sort of question is actually one of the rare ones where it makes sense for policymakers, not vendors to decide the answer.
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