No Fixed Abode: Keep On Hittin' That Shuttle
Did you hear the one about the autonomous shuttle in Las Vegas? It ran for two hours before it was in a crash.
Did you hear the clarifying detail? The crash was not the shuttle’s fault and the other driver was cited.
Did you get the underlying message of all this? The hybrid model of autonomous vehicles sharing the road with human drivers is doomed to failure.
The only question is this: How much damage will have to be caused, and how many lives will be lost, before we accept that?
Here’s the statement from the city on the matter:
The autonomous shuttle was testing today when it was grazed by a delivery truck downtown. The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that it’s sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident.
Unfortunately, the delivery truck did not stop and grazed the front fender of the shuttle. Had the truck had the same sensing equipment that the shuttle has the accident would have been avoided. Testing of the shuttle will continue during the 12-month pilot in the downtown Innovation District.
Well, that’s all very simple, isn’t it? If the truck had been as “smart” as the shuttle, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Are you convinced? You shouldn’t be. The autonomous vehicle was at the very least complicit in the accident, if you define “complicit” as “unable to take simple steps to avoid the crash.”
That sounds like an unreasonably high bar but it’s one that human drivers have to clear all the time. Here’s an example. You’re second in line at a stoplight. The light turns green. You count to five then accelerate directly into the back of the stalled car ahead of you. That will get you a ticket, because although you had the right to proceed, you are expected to exercise due care to avoid a crash. The same is true for ramming someone who cheats the order at a four-way stop and goes when they shouldn’t. That person is liable for running the stop sign; you’ll be liable for running into them even though they had no right to be where they were.
Drivers in Manhattan are well acquainted with the sort of mutual understanding that allows four lanes’ worth of cars to get through three marked lanes in the roads leading to the Lincoln Tunnel. If you try to “defend your lane” in that situation and get hit by a taxi driver, don’t expect the NYPD to make the taxi buy you a fender. The American road is not usually a place where moral absolutes hold sway.
In the case of the Las Vegas “crash,” a human driver most likely would have backed away from the truck, possibly while banging on the horn and/or yelling something impolite, and the accident would have been avoided. This sort of thing happens ten thousand times a day in cities across the globe. It’s common for delivery truck drivers to expect this kind of mild courtesy in an urban environment. If they need to back up, and you’re behind them, and there’s nothing behind you, then you should back up. That’s the kind of problem that human beings can easily solve. Yet it’s not easily codified into machine behavior.
This situation works very well when all the players are autonomous; the truck just stops dead until it’s safe to move. And it usually works very well when all the players are human; the truck moves, the car moves, somebody flips somebody off, and life continues as before. The problem is in the hybrid situation, because the two players have different sets of rules. Don’t bother to respond that the rules of the road are the same for all parties. That would work fine in my little home town of Powell, Ohio, where traffic densities are mild, roads are wide, and the general mood is so unhurried that it’s far from uncommon to see people doing 30 mph on the marked-45 two-lanes. But it won’t work in New York, Los Angeles, or even in Las Vegas.
This is all completely obvious to me, to you, and to anybody who has the low-grade pattern-recognition ability to see the obvious. We could talk a lot about machine-intelligence concepts and all of the stuff you’d get from a Hofstadter or Penrose book, but it’s not necessary. If you’ve driven in a major city for more than two hours of your life, you can intuitively understand why the hybrid system won’t work. So if a middle-aged Dad from Nowheresville can figure it out without breaking a sweat, why can’t all the big brains on the Left Coast do the same?
The answer, of course, is that they absolutely can. There’s no future in the hybrid model and there never was any future in the hybrid model. The purpose of these little experiments isn’t to prove that autonomous traffic deserves a seat at the table. Rather, the purpose is to demonstrate that human drivers need to be removed from the roads, and the sooner the better.
The government officials involved in these pilot programs may be nothing more than useful idiots, but the people who are designing and funding the programs understand very well what’s going on. Did you hear the one about the last human driver on the road? Everything was his fault, even when it wasn’t.
[Image: American Automobile Association]
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