By on October 6, 2015

voxtrain

The autonomous vehicle is coming. Everybody says so. Or at least everybody who is paid to be optimistic about the fascist-corporate future of the Western World says so. Autonomous vehicles are already so safe that the only risks come from the imperfect humans surrounding them. The Times regularly fawns over the autonomous vehicle in the same vaguely insincere, Backpfeifengesicht-smirking way it concern-trolls about suicide-by-firearm. The problem, you see, is with all the people out there. They’re too stupid to drive a car or handle a gun and the only solution is for their betters in the $100M Manhattan condos and too-precious San-Fran Nob Hill homes to keep them dosed with soma and distracted with Centrifugal Bumblepuppy during the two and a half hours a day they’re not supposed to be either working in their ping-pong-table-equipped offices or sound asleep.

I’ve spent much of the past week reading about the near-perfect safety of the autonomous roadways of the future. As fate would have it, I spent much of the week before that driving a few hundred miles’ worth of fast back roads in an assortment of very fast sports cars. After spending some time considering what I’ve read and what I’ve been doing in a sort of holistic fashion, I’ve come to believe that the safety of autonomous vehicles, like many other technical and social issues in the United States, comes down to the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse.


The fable of the two differently-domiciled rodents has changed over the past few centuries to become an example of how no situation is ideal and no individual set of tastes can be held to be superior, but it was originally meant to illustrate how there was no security or constancy in an urban existence. The pace of change has always been faster in the city. The city is its own frontier. Its great adventure is not exploration, but existence.

But the city, by its very nature, has to restrict freedom of behavior, thought, expression, and movement. It requires a form of tyranny simply to exist. To use the old expression, my freedom to swing my fist ends at your face, and in the city there is always another face just inches away. So the people who live in those cities must of necessity learn to constrain their behavior and that mindset, the mindset of subordination to the communal good, eventually becomes as natural to them as a cage does to a captive-born bird. Only the truly wealthy are exempt, because they are both powerful and rare and therefore the city does not require their submission.

We are told that trains are safe and that we should take them whenever possible. Trains are safe for many reasons, but the primary reasons are that they operate on defined routes at defined times and are controlled by a small group of trained individuals. They are subject to tyranny. Wasn’t it said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time? Trains are outstanding examples of how safe things can be when there is only one choice in the matter.

Turns out that buses are about three times as safe as cars, even if they are not as safe as planes. One suspects that, as with autonomous vehicles, many of the accidents affecting buses are due to the privately-operated vehicles surrounding them. My experience with Greyhound buses, at least, is that they run at 85 mph when it’s safe to do so and that their drivers are usually pretty sharp. Again, however, buses are subject to a sort of tyranny. Nobody just wakes up in the middle of the night and decides to drive a bus somewhere. If you want to ride the bus, you’ll submit to the bus company’s schedule and follow the route set by the bus company, unless you’re John Madden and have your own bus.

In the tyrannical environment of the modern city, with its low speeds and fixed grid and near-guaranteed availability of everything from GPS to 4G LTE to Wi-Fi to fiber, the autonomous vehicle is likely to excel. I’ve earned much of my living over the years writing computer programs to govern the behavior of various systems, from websites to robots, and I can tell you that the capability of the autonomous vehicle can be pseudo-coded as:

Capability = ((reliable location information) x (quality of rules programming) x (ability to accurately sense its surrounding environment))/(number of potential unknown unknowns)

That phase, “unknown unknowns”, is important. In the city, at 25 mph, the unknowns are known. There are only so many types of vehicles our little robot car will encounter, they can only behave in so many ways, and in any event the car can always stop. On the feeder freeways, the speeds will increase but the data will be good. The systems will know if there is ice on the roads or lanes closed ahead. The unknowns will be known and they will be easy to understand.

On a Tennessee backroad? You can encounter anything from a brown bear to a tractor-trailer carrying trusses for new homes and occupying both lanes over a blind hill. As you drive down the side of a mountain in the late fall, you might find that the road temperature is seventy degrees in the sun but there are patches of ice where new tree growth shades a hairpin corner and the rocks near it weep water from up the slope. There might be fallen rocks or unexpected holes in the asphalt. GPS coverage is spotty and there’s no data available. The roads might not even be completely mapped.

Business Insider recently came up with an interesting map. The counties shaded in blue contain half of this nation’s population:

50

I have every confidence that autonomous vehicles can be made to work in those blue counties. I believe that they will prove to be safe and efficient and, eventually, mandatory. After all, all the studies tell us that we can’t have the maximum safety benefit of robot cars until we get the Red Barchettas off the road.

What about the rest of the country, those purple mountain majesties above the fruited plains? Just like with 4G and fiber and Whole Foods supermarkets, they won’t be part of what William Gibson called the unevenly distributed future, at least not for a long time. The people in those grey counties already live different lives from their City Mouse blue-county relatives. They might own land, they might own dirtbikes, they might own guns, they might have the freedom to put their old refrigerators in the yard, they might have water from their own wells, they might have an uncomfortably long wait for an ambulance.

In the future, there will be yet another difference. The Grey People will have their own cars. They, and their children, will have a skill that will atrophy in, and eventually disappear from, their urban relatives the same way that some birds eventually lose the ability to fly due to evolutionary pressures. The Country Mice will be able to drive. Just think about that. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but the time will come when it will mean something. City Mice will be proud of their inability to drive the same way that they brag about not being able to operate an AR-15 or an impact wrench today.

We will be two Americas: one nation under the benevolent tyranny of the Google Car and one where even sixteen-year-old girls know how to drive an F-350 dually. One group that revels in its submission to the higher secular power of the transportation computer and one that will likely evolve a hypertrophied, distorted sense of independence.

What are the chances that those two nations, alike in dignity, will manage to get along?

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142 Comments on “Country Mice, City Mice, and Autonomous Vehicles...”


  • avatar
    RangerM

    And then there are those of us who live between these “dignified” nations.

    Those of us in the suburbs, who have every bit as much ability to change the oil in our vehicle or deal with an extended power outage, as we do a public transportation system; often avoiding the latter, purposely.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      In the metro area I live in, that’s most people. Detroit has 700K living in the city, but a metro area of over 4 million. Most of us are closer to country mouse than city mouse.

      • 0 avatar
        RangerM

        City enough that the country folk are suspicious of you and country enough for the city dwellers to think you’re a bumpkin.

        Things are cyclical. There will always be city mice and country mice, and people will bounce between, often winding up in the middle.

        They’ll have high speed internet, Harris Teeter (think “Whole Foods” with a bit less pretense), riding lawnmowers, and two (or more) cars with limited autonomy ability.

        I’d say autonomous cars are at least as far away as electric cars that can be charged in 5-10 minutes and go 300 or more miles while costing ~$30K and carry several hundred pounds of people and stuff with all the accessories running in any temperature.

        • 0 avatar
          jdowmiller

          Kroger bought Harris Teeter

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          Yeah. I’m the outsider in both urban and country situations.

          If I hang out with my wife’s family in Northern Michigan, I’m the only one that doesn’t own a gun, hunt, talk $hit about Obama, or own a truck (they don’t know that I was in a Ranger Battalion and can shoot better than any of them).

          However, when I hang out with my side of the family that lives in the city of Detroit or liberal suburbs, I’m the only one that doesn’t advocate banning guns, have a strong opinion of women’s reproductive rights, downplay the crime in Detroit, or talk $hit about Rick Snyder.

          I’m kind of stuck between two Americas.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            You were a Ranger?

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            I was. I had a Ranger Contract when I enlisted (I don’t even know if they still do it). Did my minimum time and got the heck out. I didn’t like Army life that much. The Ready Reserve part of my contract was up last year. Now they can’t call me back. I think about going to OCS and being in the reserves, but I already know they won’t let me have a desk job.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Interesting. One of my grandfathers was a Ranger during the war.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            If he was a Ranger in WWII, he was/is a bad mammer jammer. They were the first US soldiers to see ground combat in Europe and they [email protected]&king scaled cliffs to kill Nazis! It wasn’t enough to just kill Nazis, they needed to be super awesome, scale cliffs, disable machine gunner positions, and then held the main road behind enemy lines for two days before reinforcements arrived.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Possibly. I don’t really know much as he died in 1989 and was a major asshole toward my parents when he was alive.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            Well I know a lot of Rangers who are also a$$holes. So, I mean….yeah.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            That sounds a bit like me. At home, I’m the only one who doesn’t listen to country, think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the liberals to take our money, or think transgender jokes are all that funny. At school, I’m the only one at English Club not gushing about Bernie Sanders or trying to emulate James Joyce or William S. Burroughs in their writing.

  • avatar
    jdowmiller

    Those stats are disturbing
    *runs out and buys a motorcycle*

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      Just don’t ride your motorcycle more than 4,694,835 miles, because according to Ian Savage of the Department of Economics at Northwestern University, at the 4,694,836th mile, your odds of dying reach 100%.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      “Those stats are disturbing”

      There’s value in the comparison, but I’m skeptical of using deaths per mile. Some suggest using deaths per trip. Deaths per fuel-up works for me because it factors in the capability and range of the vehicle. Of course, electric trains become another complication. But comparing airplane miles to motorcycle miles feels incomplete.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I don’t see how having a car that drives for you is “tyranny” any more than the fact that I personally don’t know how to grow enough food to feed myself is. (Nor is it tyranny for the farmer to have the ability to grow crops, but be unable to sell them without relying on the infrastructure (and market) that all them city-folk are responsible for.)

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      It’s not tyranny until or unless your government tells you you are no longer allowed to operate a human-driven vehicle on the same roads you’ve been driving on your whole life, and that were paid for with your tax dollars. Until that day, it’s just an interesting new technology.

      Hopefully, I’ll die of natural causes before that day ever comes.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Couple of things. For starters an argument hanging on the hyperbolic abuse of terms like “tyranny” doesn’t appear to be very strong. But w/e clickbait right?

    More importantly though many folks in those blue counties have already given up driving. I know a lot of New Yorkers who are grown and have never got their driver’s license. No need if one chooses to live under the “tyranny” of the choice to pass on car ownership.

    I suppose the problems will come if folks in the blue counties dictate what will come for everyone else. But last I checked the Ford F150 is still America’s top selling vehicle. Not a lot of those in blue counties, at least outside the bible belt. Plus the sheer logistics of replacing 300 million human driven vehicles with fully autonomous ones with no current regulatory structure or even available fully autonomous cars seems like a pipe dream. Much ado about nothing.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Jack’s been listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures.

      My uncle has a country place
      That no one knows about
      He says it used to be a farm
      Before the Motor Law
      And now on Sundays I elude the eyes
      And hop the turbine freight
      To far outside the wire where my
      White-haired uncle waits

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        See I thought of Copperhead Road – Steve Earle

        Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
        Bought it at an auction at the Mason’s Lodge
        Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
        Just shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
        Well him and my uncle tore that engine down
        I still remember that rumblin’ sound
        Well the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
        Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right
        He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
        You could smell the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road

        • 0 avatar
          Willyam

          You guys are some of my favorite commentors for posts like this. Makes my work day better. Thumbs up!

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          I too immediately picked up on the Red Barchetta comment. That does beg the question, “what will law enforcement drive?”

          The irony of Jack’s comments are that we already see divides among rural and urban regions of the USA. Superimpose an election results map over that population map and you’ll see what I mean.

          You’ll never get autonomous vehicles to work well as long as there are biological entities at the helm of machines.

          As long as their is a monkey to throw that wrench into the machine that machine is at risk.

          “What are you doing Dave?”

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            Tractors and other ag machinery will acheive full autonomy long before cars. It’s not difficult when most fieldwork consists of “drive straight, U-turn, drive straight” for the better part of a day. They’re already 3/4 of the way there, at least, if you’re a 10,000+ acre farmer who can afford $150K for one new machine.

            But even our little sub-500 acre operation just got a Greenstar reverse-compatible system for the tractor we use to spread dry fertilizer. It turns it into a game of “keep the tractor on an imaginary line 6″ wide laid down by a satellite.”

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        The song is based on a Road & Track short story, available here:
        http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/transcripts/19731100roadandtrack.htm
        The assumptions: “Modern Safety Vehicles (read SUVs) are used by yahoos to attack any lesser car. Our hero is driving an MG (presumably a miata now) and is confronted by the danger that the yahoos now have walkie-talkies (read cell phones for you youngsters) and hunting in a pack. Judging by what you see on bicyclist forums in some places (one in St. Louis scared me, I’m sure Jack can say similar things about Ohio) the only real difference is the amount of damage the yahoos are willing to do to their SUVs.

      • 0 avatar
        paulinvegas

        “Geddy Lee is here today from Rush”

        -Bob and Doug Mckenzie

      • 0 avatar
        TDIGuy

        Red Barchetta is the song. Here’s a great early 80’s live performance.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjjNvjURS-s

        For those of you who don’t follow 70s/80s rock bands that aren’t on the radio anymore, Rush, with their original band members recently released their 20th studio album.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      sportyaccordy, I’m currently a couple miles from the future headquarters of Toyota and I see a bunch of pickup trucks including the Ford F150 on the road. Millions of people who have driven a pickup at some point in their life. Around here, giving up driving is equivalent to giving up living. If you don’t drive, there must be something wrong with you. This is true for all the suburban areas that were build in the last 70 years. Only people in the urban core of a few old cities choose not to drive.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        Not sure what your point is. I am an NYC native who has since left, and I have a car now. I could not live without my car where I am now. But people in NYC don’t need them.

  • avatar
    stryker1

    “Or at least everybody who is paid to be optimistic about the fascist-corporate future of the Western World says so.”

    This is why I read JB articles.

  • avatar
    dswilly

    My Amtrak, safety record is 1:1. The only time I rode Amtrak it hit a irrigation head that had walked up onto the tracks when its GPS system went out. Blew the front off the locomotive going 70 mph. We didn’t derail but were stranded for 7 hours until they could get another engine out to pull us to Lincoln.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    In that graphic you’ve included, when it says “airplane”, they’re referring to scheduled airlines. Private aviation is nearly as dangerous as motorcycle travel.

    • 0 avatar
      eManual

      One study said “This makes general aviation, with 16 deaths per 1 million hours, roughly 20 times as dangerous per hour than driving.” But you can go 3-4 times the distance flying, so it would only be 5 – 8 times higher than driving, not anywhere close to the ~30 times for a motorcycle.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    This oughta be fun….

    BTW : both Motocycles and Fiber are very good things .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    A very illustrative map Mr. Baruth. I lived in one of those “blue counties” from 2000 to 2002. That was about as long as I could tolerate it.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      You lived in the wrong part of that blue county.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Telegraph and 13 mile to live while working on 7 mile hasn’t been the place to be since prior to 1968 I’d wager.

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          The Telegraph and 13 mile area is mostly nice. I mean, it’s technically Franklin or Bingham Farms. Those are well to do suburbs (Dan Gilbert lives in Franklin. Matthew Stafford lived in Franklin until recently).

          7 Mile though…

          You could have lived out by DW and had space.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            I’m still bitter about the Oldsmobile that got stolen out of my apartment parking lot and was found stripped.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            Car theft is a problem in the Detroit area. I live in one of the best suburbs in the country, but we still have car thefts more than we should.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            Also, it was best of you to get out before you became attached to the Lions. I am hungover and angry this morning.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            Hey man, I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. Why would I exchange one group of idiots for another?

            But props to you Lions fans who never bothered my Oldsmobile even though it had a prominent orange BROWNS decal on the windshield above the review mirror mount.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            “Car theft is a problem in the Detroit area.”

            No way.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            That’s because you know our pain.

            I almost went to that game last night. I sold my tickets because I had to be in Memphis today through Friday.

            28-

            That might have been a bit of an understatement.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            I was cheering, but I’ll admit you wuz robbed.

          • 0 avatar
            jkross22

            bball,

            SOL – Same ‘Ol Lions. It’s an experience watching a football game with Lions fans.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            There is always a black swan event.

          • 0 avatar
            indi500fan

            Dan: re Browns I am too.

            As everybody knows, Cleveland sports fans are 90% scar tissue. Although I treasure my Otto Graham autographed program from the 50s.

            When I moved to Indiana, it was logical to become a Purdue fan also.

  • avatar
    turf3

    I think a more meaningful measure of safety may be deaths per passenger trip rather than per passenger mile.

    No one gets in a plane to go 7 miles to the mall. Similarly, very few people get in a car to go from New York to LA (more people do this than fly commercial airlines to the other side of town, to be sure, but if you compare the number of private vehicles (not over the road trucks) that complete the full cross-continent trip each day vs. the number of airliners, it’s not that many.

    So we know that air trips are longer – what shall we say, maybe 400 miles avg.? And we know that car trips are shorter – what shall we say, maybe 8 miles average? Now the ratio between auto and airplane goes from 100:1 to something more like 2:1.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    This pretty well sums up my thoughts on the issue, well done. However, the Grey People will have some benefit of the autonomous car, it’s a matter of degree. I drive a semi-autonomous Chrysler 300C at the moment, and I find that it actually works pretty well in semi-rural and rural areas.

  • avatar
    turf3

    The two worlds described already exist. A few examples:

    In my upper-middle-class suburb, I know of only one other person among my acquaintances who is involved in the actual creation of wealth; that is, mining, manufacturing, or agriculture. All the rest are in services of one type or another, mostly financial manipulation.

    I recently encountered a middle-aged man who was astonished that I could change a bicycle tire on the side of the road.

    Apparently the new fad in San Francisco among those who have “ironic hipster beards” is the $5.00 slice of toast.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Artisanal toast?

      • 0 avatar
        awagliar

        Nah, artisanal is $10. A fiver gets you Wonder Bread toast. Plus $8 for a PBR chaser.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          I went into a bar in downtown Nashville back in the summer of 2013. “Recession Lunch Special” was a fried bologna sandwich, chips, and PBR. – $8.

          But then again they thought “Brazilbilly” was a good name for a band. ;-)

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            PrincipalDan – i can top that, a colleague of mine told me her niece is in a band called “Vulva Culture”.

        • 0 avatar
          IHateCars

          Try paying 5 GBP for a bowl of Froot Loops at a “Cereal Bar” in downtown London. No sh!t….

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          Apparently PBR is getting too mainstream again, so hipsters will be moving on to something else soon. My bet’s on Schlitz being the next hipster drink. A beer so bad, its badness is imprinted genetically on the children of those who had the misfortune to drink one when it was a top workingman’s beer, namely, my father.

          • 0 avatar
            TMA1

            Baltimore/DC hipsters are too cool for PBR, that’s why they drink National Bohemian… which is owned by PBR… which is owned by MillerCoors.

  • avatar
    ckb

    Jack, Leaving your somewhat generous definition of tyranny aside…

    I’m trying to understand the nuance of how “unknown unknowns” are such a problem for autonomous vehicles and not for the “country driver”. Am I right in assuming said country driver is more adept at handling random situations? Is there some nuance between this hypothetical ultra improvisational driver and what someone said in an earlier TTAC article: “The point, however, is that “corner cases” do not a general case make.”

    Is the country driver not a corner case? Didn’t you, one of the most accomplished journalist drivers “run into a problem you couldn’t solve” on a country road? (apologies for the anecdote but we are talking anecdotes here and I think everyone is recovered so…fair game?) If every backroad guy is equally super well prepared to handle uncertainty and can STILL get in an accident is that a fair bar for autonomous vehicles? If a technology can reduce risk in (some big number)% of all situations but still has a random outcome at the corner cases, isn’t that still a significant worthwhile improvement?

    And when it comes to robocars, there only needs to be one reported incident of a double wide over a blind hill for every single car to be updated. Is news of such an accident in Oregon going to make it all the way to Tennessee through the grapevine? Maybe country kids know to slow down at blind hills…which is simple enough for a robocar as well.

    Anyway, just spitballin. You’ve put in more thought than I so let me know where I’m wrong…if you’re super bored or something and actually care that some internet fool continues to disagree with your premise.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      ckb, out in the country your likely the first and only driver to encounter weird, unexpected road hazards. For example, it’s hard to see black angus cows walking onto a black asphalt road on a black night. You have to be prepared to avoid deadly collisions while driving fast enough to get where you’re going. Often you have to react to vague “something’s not right” clues that tell you to slow down so you’re not the victim of a one vehicle accident.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        “For example, it’s hard to see black angus cows walking onto a black asphalt road on a black night.”

        Seems like a self driving car that can see in infrared would be far better at that than a human.

        • 0 avatar
          Kruser

          It isn’t harder to drive out in the sticks. In fact, I run into a far higher frequency of weirdness in the city. That said, the speeds out in the country are what change the equation and make it more dangerous.
          When I see people point out bizarre circumstances that automation can’t deal with, I tend to think that the default of slowing down and stopping is the right COA 99% of the time and each time one of these situations is “learned” by the system, it is available to all others. With Google driving 10k miles per week, they are finding and dealing with these situations at a very high rate. I have little doubt they can figure out the country, snow, rain, etc in a few years.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          An autonomous vehicle can “only think inside the box”. It can only follow its programming. A human is capable of extrapolation or using subtle clues.
          I’ve managed to notice an approaching vehicle on a gravel road by spotting dust ahead or a glint of light that shouldn’t be there. Same can be said for changes in road surface.

          • 0 avatar
            Toad

            There are plenty of drivers that are completely unaware of obvious clues, let alone subtle clues. If I have to trust the judgement of the average driver vs. Google, right now I would lean towards Google. With another few months of software development Google software will definitely be, on average, safer than most drivers.

            On the whole this is progress. In 1905 expert horsemen did not like horseless carriages but cars soon made the vast majority of people better off. Autonomous vehicles will probably have a similar net positive effect.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            Lou_BC – in my part of the world rural mortality rates are very high due to the difficulty of getting timely EMS/Trauma care. One can view that as natural selection at its finest.
            With that being said, I’d much rather be dodging loaded logging trucks and drunken hillbillies on one lane industrial roads than spend any time driving in a large human zoo aka metropolitan centre.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Autonomous vehicles will be quite capable of recognizing that dust or glint of light.

            Developing the software for them is an iterative process. Every test mile they drive (and, once they are on the market, every real mile they drive) will teach them more about small clues that are meaningful to their next decisions. You can bet the license agreement will allow developers to look at footage (outside the car only, so they can’t see you pick your nose) and use it to develop rules for earlier recognition of potential hazards.

            As a bonus, the car can see and hear in spectra you can’t, so it can see clues you can’t, once it is taught to recognize them.

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            The very biggest advantage of an autonomous car is simply that it is ALWAYS PAYING ATTENTION. Even if it is only as good as the most average driver out there, the fact that it is always paying attention will make it a better driver than Jack. Then add the advantage that it will also be able to see better, farther, and with more “senses” and I do not see any way that the roads won’t be a better place to be.

            Though personally, I just want a happy medium. All I want is an autopilot for those long, boring, interstate slogs through all those counties that aren’t blue. I’ll handle the really tough parts if I have to, just let me take a nap when driving through hours and hours of nothing.

            Finally, at this point talking about deaths in any mode of transport is largely pointless. It is a REALLY rare event to die in any sort of vehicle accident, no matter what kind. Well, other than motorcycles and light planes, I suppose. But at this point you almost have to go out of your way to die in a car crash, and you really have to be spectacularly unlucky to die in a train or commercial plane crash. If anything, and I say this as someone who got on almost 150 different commercial airplanes last year, we probably spend too much money on safety for that particular mode of transportation. We certainly spend WAY too much on “security”.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Computers, given enough data and rules that arise from that data, are *extremely* good at spotting and acting on those things that tell you “something’s not right.”

    • 0 avatar
      bludragon

      This was my thought as well. I’d expect the autonomous car to be capable of functioning better than an average driver in all the situations mentioned. The only issue might be they are not the initial design target.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      “If every backroad guy is equally super well prepared to handle uncertainty and can STILL get in an accident is that a fair bar for autonomous vehicles?”

      “Well prepared” would have involved, at the very least, a set of studless winter tires.

      Good, thoughtful post though.

  • avatar
    George B

    Minor point regarding city vs. country. GPS is available everywhere and 4G LTE is available near most highways, but wired broadband and Wi-Fi are only found in town. If you live out in the country you can receive satellite television and record it on your DVR, but forget about streaming video. The cellular phone network is likely your primary way to get internet access.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      ‘ GPS is available everywhere ‘ .

      No , it isn’t .

      I spend a lot of time in remote Desert roads and the GPS often loses it’s signal even when I’m in the open , sometimes on top of a hill .

      -Nate

  • avatar
    Kruser

    I’m fine with many of the observations in this piece, but it gets a bit cartoonish in some of the characterizations. I’m from Wyoming and now live in Boston. People here have to rely on each other and the state more than in a less populated place. Fair enough. But describing any inconvenience as tyranny is way over the top. Not being able to take a bus at a whim or own my own bus is in no way oppressive, cruel or extreme.
    As for the spread of autonomous cars to the American outback, I wonder if we won’t see cooperatives come back into play. My grandfather helped start both telephone and power co-ops in rural SD when no company was willing to expend the capital on a bunch of farmers/ranchers. I can imagine these people banding together to save themselves money, time, etc rather than waiting…. that’s freedom for you.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      Tyranny is defined as “the arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power”. To that extent many of us have not asked for these vehicles.

      Part of the point I get from Jack’s story is that to gain safety we must sacrifice some freedom. If we do this voluntarily then that isn’t really tyranny but if we are herded into it then that is.

  • avatar
    Willyam

    I don’t disagree with this article at all, but I see kind of a microcosm of vehicular pilot-evolution going on in my locality. I do believe we will end up where Jack posits, but my particular area is changing from country to city mouse pilot status and it’s a rough, jerky, dangerous process.

    While in downtown Chicago, Miami, especially central Philly, I am constantly amazed by the ability of people to squeeze past each other and hit nothing, in vehicles that are too wide for the lanes they’re in. Yes, there are accidents, but look how many times a day a minivan or box truck weaves through lunchtime traffic without a scratch.

    Meanwhile, in northern Tulsa county, I watch the growth of the new American spread-out cities, with their dirt-cheap housing and fuel and tax rates, and its effect on drivers who are used to being able to much a steak sandwhich while keeping a dualie between empty flat shoulders. No longer. Now they must share infrastructure that was not pre-sized for this traffic. They blaze by on the right, aggressively weave, yell at their spouse on the cell, and fail to signal during any and all manuvers.

    This morning’s best example was SUV vs. Oldsmobuick attempting to decide whether the cloverleaf lane was an exit, entrance, or demolition derby. Neither would change speed or signal, until they hit the end, and one went onto the shoulder, one went up the ramp, and the gravel truck behind them left perfect magic-marker tire stripes and smoke as he desperately tried to avoid making hamburger out of both of them. For these drivers, the Google-Mobile cannot get here soon enough. I can’t wait to see the Okie version with forty-inch mud tires and diesel stacks.

    • 0 avatar
      50merc

      Re: cloverleafs and other merging situations — I see a lot of that in the OKC metro area, too. A lot of drivers apparently unaware there’s anyone else on the road.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Probably about as good as they get along now.

    The big question is: “When will those living in the blue area decide that those living in the grey area have to living in the same manner?”

    Whether that same manner works, or is practical is not necessarily a consideration.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Evidently parts of Florida are overpopulated.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      Having grown up in Florida, I would have to say that almost all of Florida is overpopulated, at least during tourist season.

      Growing up as a local in a tourist area provided me with an extracurricular education that would be hard to duplicate. I have ended up with a patina of cynicism, without having gone all the way over into bitter. Just enough to leave me skeptical of enough things to avoid blindly wandering through life.

      But I HATED it when my hometown went from about 15K people to over 100K people every winter. And driving habits were just the tip of the iceberg.

      Or as Chrissy Hynde used to sing “Hey Ho, way to go, O-HI-O!”.

      If you had to choose between trusting a student driver or an Ohio driver during tourist season, a prudent person always went with the student driver. May not be true of all Ohio drivers, but it sure was true of Ohio drivers on the West Coast of Florida during tourist season.

      • 0 avatar
        Rudolph

        Worse — an Ohio student driver :(

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @VolandoBajo

        I often disagree with you, but you are spot on with this one. The difference between driving in Maine between Memorial Day and Labor Day and the rest of the year is more than night and day. The tourist hordes come, and it all goes to sh!t. Of course most of the problem is that the majority of the hordes are from MA, NJ, and NY. Which is probably a big part of your winter problem too!

  • avatar
    Pch101

    If cruise control becomes widespread, then the bureaucrats will require right-foot amputations.

    If air conditioning becomes commonplace, then the dictators will force us to wear sweaters.

    Get off my lawn!

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    One huge disruptive force autonomous cars could enable that would prompt their use in the gray regions would be public transportation in areas of suburban sprawl. An autonomous car or van or bus would be free from fixed bus routes or schedules, but would also be free from the hassles of full on car ownership. This would be huge for large swaths of people- commuters, the elderly, kids etc etc.

    Of course there comes the issue of safety. In a car you are alone. On a bus or train or plane you have the public and the driver. A commuter car could be a criminal’s dream…. them and their victims in isolation for the whole ride. That is a legitimate concern. Beyond that though, the benefits seem obvious to me, both for smug urbanite and skeptical bumpkin. Having access to the convenience of a private car without the cost of a cab driver or ownership of the car itself makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.

  • avatar
    hreardon

    Great piece, Jack.

    While there are obviously shades of grey in Jack’s argument, the essence is spot on. Those in urban centers do require a more cohesive, organized way of life that those of us who grew up in suburban or exurban environments sometimes have a hard time understanding or accepting.

    What’s important is for both factions to understand that they’re not mutually exclusive nor that one is necessarily better than the other – the mindsets are suited to the environment one lives in.

    Many of my suburban and urban friends don’t understand the importance of handguns and are willing to subrogate that right to the police voluntarily. In rural environments where the police may be 30 minutes away on a good day, or someone is trying to steal livestock, or where EMS/fire may be 30-60 minutes away – you learn very quickly the value of fending for yourself.

    Like others here, I grew up straddling the fence of suburban/exurban and urban settings. I have an appreciation and (I feel) decent understanding of both mindsets.

    • 0 avatar
      fvfvsix

      I’m with you on that. I grew up in a rural place (184 people/sq mile) where the cops would see you shooting a gun in your back yard and join you just to let off a few rounds and shoot the breeze (no joke).

      I’ve also been a resident of Alameda county, CA (2074 people/sq mile). Forget guns – merely having the wrong window tint on your car will garner the attention of our blue-suited citizen protectors.

      The concept of “services” and autonomy are so completely different in those two places, to the extent that I’m not sure how the cognitive gap can be bridged.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The idea that autonomous cars won’t be able to react to what they find on a country road is just silly. The only difference between the country road and the city street is the speed at which things happen, and if computers are anything, they are fast. Other than the speed, the issues are the same. Unpredictable movements by (human and non-human) meatsacks, surfaces with compromised traction, unexpected obstructions… those problems are fundamentally the same on all types of roads.

    I would say the autonomous car has *more* to offer in the suburbs and rural areas. In cities, most people who can’t drive because of youth, old age, disability, or infirmity can get around by public transit. In the suburbs and rural areas, that’s not an option, and the autonomous car will open up a whole new world of possibilities for those people. Also, distances are far longer in rural areas, and people will have more to gain from being freed up to do other things while they cross those very long distances.

    I also will object, as usual, to your portrayal of city life using public transit as some sort of dystopian totalitarian situation. In the densest cities, a car hinders your freedom, rather than helping it. You have to find, and pay big money for, parking. Insurance and maintenance are more expensive. You get stuck in low-speed congestion on roads that are designed for pedestrians, who are the majority of road users. The best public transit avoids the roads, runs at almost all hours, and runs often enough that you really do control your schedule. When you need to go beyond the range of public transit, it’s trivially easy and pretty cheap either to hail a ride or to rent and drive a car.

    I currently live in an inner-ring suburb where a car is a major convenience. But I’ve also lived in plenty of situations where my car was a net hassle, costing more than it benefited me, even though I kept it anyway because I’m an irrational car nut.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Autonomous cars, if practicable and affordable, will be a gigantic blessing to rural and semi-rural populations.

      I daily have to be wary of the eternally-blinking-Buicks driven by folks who hadn’t oughtta.

      And I’m not far from joining them. I fookin’ hate driving any more.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        If all you want is a point A to B commute along a well determined path then fill your boots. How often does google maps get updated? I’ve been in rural areas where google was wrong. I’m sure all of those sensors will spot blow-down trees, pot holes, mud holes, bridge and/or culvert washouts et al.

        The question ultimately is about personal freedom.

        I’m not willing to surrender my freedom to drive where I want when and how I want to a machine.

        In some respects that is part and parcel of the great divide between rural and urban dwellers. In more remote areas you have to be self sufficient. Relying on “Hal” the Google car to get my azz to where I want to go doesn’t cut it. I’m sure that the “greens” at Google wouldn’t let that google car take me to that remote fishing hole all in the name of saving the planet.

        I’ll repeat this one:

        The question ultimately is about personal freedom.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Why wouldn’t the sensors be able to spot a blown-down tree (a big, very radar-apparent obstruction), a pothole, or a missing stretch of roadway? Those are very easy things to identify.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            dal20402 – yes but why would I want to leave that to a computer since that is 99% of the fun of travelling the back country. I love to drive. I don’t want a machine taking full control. Remember the part about personal freedom?

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            OK, if you see autonomous vehicles as hazardous to freedom, then that is the argument you should be making. No reason to clutter it up with much less reasonable objections that the autonomous vehicle system technically can’t deal with simple hazards.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            dal20402 – did I say that they could not deal with simple hazards?

            Some things are more nebulous and require an intuitive response. That was what I was eluding to in my comment about spotting dust patterns or a glint or glimpse of something odd through the trees.

            We already have many examples of automation being superior to human response. ABS is a prime example.

            BUT

            I’ve been in situations where ABS, stability and traction control increase risk and have gotten me into trouble.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      Yep, I agree 100%. The automated car deal begins to make more sense when you decouple cars from private ownership. A driverless cab would be a huge boon in rural and suburban areas for folks without the means or desire to drive everywhere. IMO the safety concerns aren’t with the computer driving the car, it’s potentially having strangers in such confined spaces for extended periods of time.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        “decouple cars from private ownership”

        Who said anything about *that*?

        Plenty of people out here and the deeper boonies you don’t want in any vehicle that later comes to get you.

        And public ownership means you get to pay for hauling my fat, diabetic and alcoholic ass to the Cabelas 45 miles away. Plenty of time for my urethral muscles to let go.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    This Sunday’s “60 Minutes” had a feature by Bill Whittaker about autonomous cars, and one of the ones he rode in was an S-Class Merc that *would not break the speed limit.*

    As a result, merging onto the California highway was far more ‘exciting’ than it needed to be, and even the engineer quipped that their robo-cars do tend to drive like “grannies.”

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Widespread adoption of AVs will hinge on exactly that; getting *all* the meatsacks’ hands off the wheels or AVs will routinely get creamed.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      “[W]ill not break the speed limit.”

      Naptime as I crawl along in traffic? Lord help us if a 55mph national limit is put into effect again. :-(

      And the bit about grannies honking at the car as it attempts to enter a freeway: is that an autonomous car or a regular car being driven by a typical Northwest Ohio resident? (For whom a 50mph merge into 65mph+ freeway traffic is SOP.)

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        Don’t be so sure they won’t break the speed limit. I was headed west on Vermont Rt 4 and the speed limit dropped from I think 50 down to 30 or 35. The car thought it was still 50 and flashed 50 mph on the nav system. I can’t remember how far we went before the car’s database had the right speed. Fortunately I was driving and slowed it down. The theory is that when AVs are common, the databases will be flawless and tree branches will be trimmed in front of every speed limit sign in the country, but I doubt it. So, an autonomous vehicle could actually end up speeding and getting ticketed.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Didn’t that already happen?

  • avatar
    wumpus

    My repeating comment to this repeating story.

    Japan. Take a look at Japanese demographics (they haven’t been replacing themselves for a long time) and bring this back up after they have autonomous cars for their [by then] ancient population. Then make quick plans for having cars that can shuttle the baby boomers around before they run over everyone.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    Autonomous cars don’t have to be perfect, they just need to be as good or better than the average human driver.

    The answer to “what will an autonomous car do when it encounters a cow in the middle of an icy corner?” is “Probably crash.”

    However, the current alternative to autonomous cars in rural America isn’t a steely-eyed and attentive race car driver. It’s a texting loudmouth in a Tweety Bird shirt, whose driving skills are sufficiently poor that 30k+ Americans are killed in car crashes every year.

    The whole question of “what does autonomous car do in specific unlikely condition XYZ?” is only relevant if we are willing to also consider how well a human driver is likely to respond in the same situation.

    I (conservatively) expect that it will be possible to build an autonomous car that performs as well as an 80th percentile human driver within the next decade.

    Add in the benefits from nonbiological sensors, the indefatigable nature ofmachines, and the possibility of networking portions of the transportation system together and it really does look inevitable that human drivers will become a liability on all roads within a generation.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      The autonomous car is not going to be made available to the public for use in a given situation until it’s far, far safer than the 80th-percentile human driver in that situation.

      They are already far safer than any human driver in the situations where they’ve had a lot of experience: surface driving in relatively open suburbs in good weather. They are steadily getting there in other types of driving and weather. Contra Jack, one of the hardest problems seems to be getting them through a city environment safely but without grinding to a complete halt as a result of overcaution. Snow and ice are another of the hardest problems. But cars are accumulating miles and data right now in those environments, and will eventually be taught to deal with 99.99% of the problems they’ll find. If you look at the iterative process they’ve already gone through — drive, see unexpected situation, create rule to identify and handle that situation, repeat — it’s impossible to think that more work *won’t* solve all but a tiny fraction of the problems, easily enough to outperform human drivers by orders of magnitude.

      And when all the cars on a given roadway are autonomous, then they can speed up and follow closer, increasing capacity and reducing travel time.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      Slob, texting driver is allowed to persist because it has no recoverable assets and state minimum insurance coverage.

      When a car with Apple’s pockets behind it crashes on its own the lawyers will be lined up all the way to the door.

      A feasible self driving car must be six sigma perfect.

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        There appear to be any number of automatic devices which can (and do) fail with dangerous or deadly outcomes; and the manufacturers of these items have not yet been sued into oblivion.

        Seems it can be done.

        Auto makers and autonomous system developers could also be protected from liability via legislation, as per firearm and light aircraft manufacturers.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      >> Add in the benefits from nonbiological sensors, the indefatigable nature ofmachines,

      Machines can get distracted. If it’s tracking too many targets, the processing can slow drastically. Fatigue can occur – like bearing deterioration on the rotating LIDAR scanners. And what happens to your headlight covers over time? You think the scanners are covered by magic pixie glass? What happens to that laser when it gets a tiny .25 millimeter pit in the glass and the beam gets altered?

  • avatar
    Frylock350

    Public transit is safer than driving is a refrain I hear often, though the data used to prove the point is pretty irrelevant to any individual situation (ie YMMV).

    The “car fatality” stat includes drunk drivers, texting drivers, very old/young drivers, all car types, and any driving style. My risk as a 30 something in a new 5500lb truck outfitted with all the latest safety technology who drives very defensively is much lower than the drunk frat boy in a 15 year old 3-series with bad brakes going 85 down the interstate while texting about Dane Cook or whatever douchey frat boys are into these days.

    Additionally, safety is being rated purely on fatalities and completely ignores the possibility of being the victim of personal or violent/sexual crime. Would you live in a neighborhood with a low murder rate but sky high home invasion or robbery rate?

    I’ll take my chances in my truck. I have more control, I’m surrounded by safety technology, nobody’s ever tried to panhandle me, steal my wallet, or stab me in my truck.

  • avatar
    zamoti

    A Michael Bluejay link?! Why is it that twice in as many days I have come upon this man and his 1996 style website?!

  • avatar
    philadlj

    While it’s one of the most populous counties in the U.S., San Bernadino County’s density is only about 100 people per square mile (compared to 52,000 and 111,000, respectively, in neighboring Riverside and L.A. counties), much of it bunched in the southwest corner.

    So realistically you’d probably have to toss it and quite a few other blue counties into the grays.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Same thing with Pima County, AZ. They just went over 100 people/sq mile in 2010.

      Even Maricopa County, which has the 6th largest city in the country has a population density under 500 people/sq mile.

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        That makes sense. There’s not much “vertical” building in the Phoenix area, which is required for real population density.

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          And when you get outside the Phoenix Metro there is NOTHING. Between Phoenix and Tucson there is Casa Grande and an ostrich farm. Both Maricopa and Pima counties also have a lot of government land and rez.

  • avatar
    eamiller

    Jack,
    RE:”tyranny”

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    If the motorcycle was created today it would not even be considered a vehicle to be on public roads.

    Maybe they should be relegated to motocross and racetracks and made into novelty toys.

    But, imagine the big badass bikies like the Hell Angels without bikes. What would they drive? If it was small I suppose Kei trucks and micro cars would be their choice. They are about the size of a “Can Hardly Davidson”.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      “imagine the big badass bikies like the Hell Angels without bikes. What would they drive?”

      That’s easy. Big, primitive, and loud. A lot of American pre-smog machinery with V8s. Big diesel pickups, likely tuned to spew out particulates Beijing-style. The occasional pony car, especially Challengers.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Big Al from Oz – Harleys aren’t the only thing they ride. It is part of the image and so called “biker lifestyle”. One is more likely to see HA gang leaders in armoured SUV’s than on bikes.

        Stereotypes abound.

  • avatar
    JimothyLite

    Mr. Baruth, you and Mr. Niedermeyer are on similar wavelengths today– two country mice, God bless ya.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Jack, quick question. Whats the G in GPS for? Mine works better in wide open places with fewer skyscrapers. Cliffs and mountains mess it up too, but….

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Even those with a country place outside the wire — places no one knows about — will eventually not be exempt from this dystopian future. The corpofascists shall also make the decisions for the country mice, sending their gleaming alloy air cars to enforce strict road compliance and also take our ARs and AKs away.

    “Stand high long enough and your lightning will come.”
    William Gibson

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Well hell ;

    I guess I’ll just have to go hit the country back roads for two days then…..

    As of yet I don’t know the route but hopefully at least partly on Trona Road , that’s always fun , the view into The Panamint Valley is superb , just don’t forget to mind those sharp asses curves =8-) .

    One of those places I dasn’t dare run the car wide open .

    -Nate

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