By on November 11, 2010

Science fiction author Charlie Stross recently penned a blog piece on the future impact of autonomously computer-driven cars. Let’s call them “robocars.” I’ve pondered this before and Stross’s post is the perfect jumping-off point for a discussion of the many issues standing between science fiction and the robocar future. Let’s take a look.

Firstly, based on the progress from DARPA’s Grand Challenge and now Google’s fleet of robocars, it’s eminently clear that computers are getting very good at driving. Robocars rely on a variety of different ways of sensing the road (stereo video cameras, laser range-finders, sonar, radar, GPS — you name it and somebody’s tried it). One of the ways that robots gain increased accuracy is by fusing data from multiple distinct sensors, and that means that the cost and reliability of those sensors will be one of the limiting factors before robocars hit the mainstream, never mind the pesky problem of all those sensors looking decidedly ugly.

Stross posits that once robocars become affordable, insurance companies and government regulations will immediately favor them over traditional cars, and it’s easy to see why. Take away the human driver and you take away driving while drunk, distracted, or drowsy. Long-distance trucking companies would immediately jump on the chance to have their rigs running all day and night without drivers who require food and sleep. Stross suggests that we won’t even bother owning cars any more, except for the occasional nut-job / TTAC aficionado who likes to race. In a congested big city where taxis are everywhere (New York, London, etc.), plenty of people already don’t bother to own cars, and new business models like ZipCar fill in where taxis don’t really cut it. Still, while I’ve only spent occasional time in New York, I have attempted to get a taxi there while it’s raining, and let’s just say that supply didn’t meet demand. With robocars, we can easily imagine ZipCar-like services where you pay more for higher priority when demand grows. Maybe we’ll see instant auctions: I’ll pay $100 for the first car that shows up right here, right now! Or reverse auctions: I need to go from here to there, who’s willing to take me for the least money? My kingdom for a ride downtown in a Mercedes! Make it so, number one.

I see a completely different impact on suburbia. With my own house, I made the tradeoff to live close to work versus having a glorious suburban starter castle and a one hour drive-time commute from hell. What if all that pain went away and I could rig up my car to be more like a rolling office? Now living in the distant suburbs wouldn’t be nearly as bad. Robocars could drive faster, with less separation between cars, and would be far less likely to get into wrecks. And when wrecks do happen, robocars wouldn’t slow down just to rubberneck. Expensive parking lots at work or the airport? Why bother? Send the car home and it will pick you up when you need it again, or send it a few miles away to a robocar-only parking lot that can really pack the cars in for a cheaper price.

Since I’m a computer security guy, I should probably spend some time on how things could go horribly wrong. Some of Stross’s commenters got into the dystopian aspects of robocars. Much like all the robots in the inexplicably lame I, Robot movie all going evil at the same time (poor Isaac Asimov, spinning like a hidden Iranian centrifuge in his grave), it’s easy to imagine that robocars would be required to have “back door” access for the government, both in terms of reporting your whereabouts (see, for example, attempts to tax cars based on miles driven rather than gas consumed) and in terms of being able to hijack your car for any of a variety of purposes ranging from instructing a bank robber’s car to go straight to the police station to various spy-vs-spy applications, up to and including murdering undesirables by driving them at high speed into any convenient brick wall.

Perhaps less ominously, it’s easy to imagine hacking your robocar to post bogus traffic announcements that cause other cars to reroute themselves away from you, giving you a clean shot at your destination. You might also send fake messages to a car from its tire-pressure sensors causing the target robocar to slow down and pull over because it thinks there may be a flat tire (the fake message part is already feasible). Computer security researchers have already determined that in-car electronics aren’t particularly well-engineered from a security perspective, which seems unlikely to change any time soon, so there may not need to be any sort of government-mandated backdoor. It will probably be there as a consequence of poor engineering.

Malicious behavior aside, teenagers will have great fun hacking their friends’ cars to take them to incorrect destinations and hacking their own cars to ignore speed limits or take them to the party while the electronic logs say they went to the library. Tinkers will still mod their robocars in a variety of ways, such as increasing the g-limit for acceleration, braking, and turning in non-emergency situations. Why? A robocar would make for a hell of a hoontastic experience! J-turn your way into every parallel parking space. Safely and accurately.

It’s equally easy to imagine the liability lawyers getting involved in all kinds of ways. If a software bug caused my car to misbehave and I got hurt, or if a car thief told my car that it wasn’t mine any more and it left me, whose fault is that? Can I sue the manufacturer for negligence? That kind of fear, alone, will slow down the rise of the robocars. It’s a safe prediction that robocars will first come to us as an evolution of taxis and ZipCar-like services, particularly when the technology is still expensive and immature. Another easy prediction: the big consumer demand will start when the Baby Boomers, now in their 60’s, hit the age where their kids agitate for the keys to get taken away. The Baby Boomers will proudly get up, shake their canes at us, and lead us into our inevitable robocar future. Let’s just hope all the security issues have been worked out beforehand.

Linguistic note: I’m using the term “robocar”, while ABC News, in the clip below, uses “self-driving cars.” If you think about the word “automobile” — “automatic” plus “mobile” — robocars are really a step toward realizing the original purpose of the car, namely to get you where you want to be, automatically.


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21 Comments on “The Future of Robotic Self-Driving Cars...”

  • avatar

    It’s gonna happen, probably sooner than we expect. A majority of drivers would rather be doing something else. Enthusiasts are in the minority.

    • 0 avatar


      Cars that can drive themselves will completely cut the state out of the revenue they make off us by ticketing us. Imagine if you could jump out the car, run into work and the car continues to search for a parking space until one is available.  The states would be screwed.

      Not to mention if the car had an accident the manufacturer could be sued for imperfect programming.

    • 0 avatar

      I like cars, but I hate commuting and traffic.  If I have the dough I would get a chauffeur, but I also like privacy.  If I live in a region where the government is sufficiently transparent, I would take a robocar in a heartbeat.

  • avatar

    like Stross says, it comes down to statistics. If it becomes statistically safer and/or more efficient to automate driving, insurers will race in that direction, applying pressure for consumers to move in that direction as well. That’s not even considering the possible (and likely) legal requirements that could come out of this. It may be in 10 years or it may be in 100, but it’s hard to see what would stop this.

    Also glad to see Charlie getting recognition and attention. He’s a great writer, and thinks deep like you or I eat lunch or take naps.

  • avatar

    Robotic cars safe?  I wonder what Astro Boy has to say about this?

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    Mr. Stross has a novel called “Accelerando” which is a free download. It’s written in a style best described as “teenaged illiterate” but the concepts explored in the book are important and deeply considered.

  • avatar

    Ahh yes. A pic taken from one of my favorite 90’s movies of all time, Total Recall

  • avatar

    I’m an enthusiast, especially off-road, but I have to say I hate my daily commute in that stop and go traffic at the height of rush hour. I’d rather sleep in and shower and shave on the way to work. Would that also be possible? :)

    • 0 avatar

      Really the best commute is no commute. I work at home when I am not travelling, my office is 125 miles away and my Boss lives 300 miles awway – he works at home too! My normal daily commute is to roll over and turn my bedroom laptop on. :-)

  • avatar

    I’m as much a driving enthusiast as they come, but I would LOVE to have a car that can drive itself on the Interstate. The superslab is efficient, but mind-numbingly boring. I’ll handle the two-lanes myself though, thanks.

  • avatar

    Google should dedicate some time to the vertical lift off plane. Imagine getting into to your autonomous car to get a lift to a flyport. You then get in a small compact flying plane, which holds upto 5 people and takes you right into the heart of a city 100’s of miles away.

  • avatar

    In Los Angeles, I would love to have freeways be robo-optional–that is, if you get on the freeway, you can log-in to the freeway network and let robocar drive. Once you exit, you’re on your own again.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I have repeatedly said here that robocars will first be a luxury, then ubiquitous, then mandatory. I think there are lots of issues to be resolved, but that within a generation it will be illegal to drive your car on a highway without having the car’s computer do it for you.
    It will constitute a revolution in car ownership and transportation in general. And, not a moment too soon.

  • avatar
    Mr. Gray

    I predicted the iPhone and this prediction is coming true, also. My next prediction is GPS/internet access chips installed in our brains as soon a we’re born. It’s coming. Sooner than you think.

  • avatar

    Forget the robo-car for individual users.
    The real freakin’ money is in cargo transport and robo-trucks.

    I have been pounding this same comment on many of the sites about this subject.

    Doesn’t anyone get this?

    Think about how much money that say Walmart could put back into its owners pockets by using autonomous delivery trucks and laying off all of its drivers.
    This car thing is just the start though I could see the insurance companies requiring it in order to reduce their costs…

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, the “auto” in automobile comes from the Greek “autos,” meaning “self.” It’s a vehicle that moves itself, not a vehicle that moves autonomously. ;)

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