Rise of the Robocars!

Jamais Cascio at Open the Future recently posted (along with his own commentary) a link to an essay by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Brad Templeton: The Implications of Robot Cars and Taxis.

As one of the seemingly few non-driving Americans out there, and as someone who finds robotics in general pretty fascinating, I’m tremendously interested in the promises, prospects, and particulars of robotic vehicles. Though perhaps not as high on the list of “things I’d like to see in my lifetime” as, say, drastic improvements in social justice, effective longevity medicine, and widespread scientific literacy, robotic cars are definitely somewhere on said list. Not only could they benefit the environment (by automating certain common driving tasks and making them more efficient, thereby saving fuel), they could potentially provide new options for those today who cannot drive regular automobiles, as well as drastically reduce traffic injuries and fatalities across the population.

Anyway, Templeton’s essay is definitely worth a read. He points out, quite rightly, that it was only a few years ago when the very idea of self-driving cars was considered pure science fiction. Now, given the impressive (and improving) performance of the autonomous vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge (a military-sponsored contest in which teams competed to create cars that could navigate a track without a human driver), more and more people are beginning to seriously consider robot cars as a potential reality for civilian applications.

Templeton also emphasizes what I often see as a much-neglected truth about automobile safety these days: that is, driving isn’t particularly safe for anyone, not just those of us whose perceptual systems are optimized for activities other than driving:

Car accidents kill about 45,000 people every year in the USA, and a million around the world. They injure and maim millions more, and tear apart many more lives with grief, for these are all premature deaths, often among the young.

Consider that number in context. That’s just a bit fewer than the numbers who die of Alzheimer’s and Influenza, and more than the death toll of kidney disease, infections and suicide. It’s double the death toll of liver disease and hypertension and nearly triple that of homicide. It’s more than most individual diseases and cancers.

For young adults 15-34, of course, who do not fall nearly so often to heart disease or Alzheimer’s, it the leading cause of death among the established categories.

Cars make life a lot more convenient for a lot of people, though — to the point where I think many lose sight of the risks involved, or consider that they have to accept these risks because they don’t have any other viable transportation options. Now, of course there’s no guarantee that robot cars would be safer for the mere fact of being robotic, but it is definitely true that a well-designed robotic vehicle might very well be able to avoid some common areas of egregious human error. Templeton notes:

[The fact that the cost of accidents is arguably the single largest component of the per-mile cost of driving a vehicle] is important because to be accepted, robocars must have a dramatically lower rate of accidents — as close to zero as possible. While no software system can every be truly free of bugs, because a “crash” here has a literal as well as metaphorical meaning, teams must work particularly hard. In addition, these technologies will arrive incrementally, in the form of “crash-resistant” cars which are still mostly driven by people.

The essay goes on to discuss the potential cost savings of robot cars, the areas where such cars might first be deployed, the attributes of today’s vehicles that might suggest we’re moving in the direction of “smarter” vehicles, etc. Check it out if you’re curious about such things — regardless of whether you agree with all the premises and conclusions, it’s a good, comprehensive collection of thoughts on the subject of robotic vehicles.

Personally, when I think about what it might take to get robot cars deployed and put to use, I think not only in terms of the cars themselves but of the infrastructure they’d inhabit. A while back, I commented on a really neat article from a 1968 Mechanix Illustrated piece that attempted to describe the world of 2008 (which we now inhabit). I’ve long loved reading retro-futurist stuff (ever since I found a pile of ancient Science Digests in my great-grandmother’s basement as a youngster), not only because it can be highly amusing, but because it can provide interesting insights into what the priorities and biases were in the past.

Anyway, the Mechanix Illustrated piece was particularly fascinating in that it ended up juxtaposing several eerily accurate predictions with several that just sound silly, to an even greater degree than I normally see in articles along similar lines. After reading it, I got to thinking about what characterized the accurate predictions vs. the inaccurate ones, and the main thing that came to mind was that it seems to be a lot easier to predict advances in communication and commerce than in large-scale infrastructure.

In other words, the article’s description of television-telephone systems that allow families to shop for products from their own homes sounds a heck of a lot like Amazon.com and their ilk, but its description of gigantic super-domes over cities and special roads populated entirely by fast-moving autonomous vehicles sounds frankly kitschy given how 2008 actually ended up looking.

Much of 2008’s urban/suburban landscape looks very similar to 1968’s these days (at least based on pictures I’ve seen; I wasn’t born until 1978) — we’ve still got asphalt-paved roads, internal combustion vehicles everywhere, houses with peaked, shingled roofs and brown carpeting, etc. Sure, people are dressing differently these days, cars have different contours, and shopping malls are looking shinier, but most of that is essentially “window dressing” and fashion as opposed to unheard-of developments hastening a move toward crystal spires and togas.

Most of the things that might actually count as “revolutionary” developments (as usual, keeping in mind that over half the world still lacks flush toilets) remain subtle, even furtive: cellular towers blending inconspicuously along stretches of freeway alongside silos and power poles, blue CAT-5 cable stuffed and strung like bundles of blue spaghetti behind pithy office ceilings outfitted with flickery fluorescents, tiny computers nestled in purses and pockets. Certainly at least some lives, and much of the communication and commerce infrastructure have changed very much since 1968 — but the physical landscape, and the ways in which we get around from place to place, really haven’t.

Nevertheless, I definitely don’t think we’re going to need “domed, evenly climatized cities” (which don’t sound like much fun anyway) in order to have robot cars, but things are definitely going to need to change rather a lot in urban and suburban areas before robot cars can really make the splash they ought to in order to enter common use.

Initially, this might mean something like “automated valet” services (which Templeton mentions) that will park your “smart” car in a garage when you arrive at your destination, and I can see something like this happening with something resembling existing infrastructure (in some parts of the world/country). Later on, though, we’re going to run up against the matter of where people will want to live vs. where they want to shop, eat, go to school, work, etc. — and that might entail larger re-builds of roadways and other current routes to support greater automation.

I definitely look forward to following further developments in this area!