Friday, September 11, 2015

Google in the driver's seat


     A man wants to drive.
     Sexist? Sure. But we live in a sexist society. I didn't invent it, I'm just trying to live in it. Scanning 25 years of marriage, I'd say I drive 95 percent of the time. Maybe more.
     I like to drive. It feels strange to sit in the passenger seat watching the scenery go by. Powerless.
     Which is why I've been following the advent of Google's self-driving cars.
     They're curiosities, now. Only four states allow them even to be road tested—California,

Nevada, Michigan and Florida, though this month the tech giant is scooting vehicles around Austin, Texas, through a special arrangement with the government there. They always have a human driver, in case something goes wrong.
     But that will change. You'll eventually see one, then a few , then they'll be everywhere.
     The artificial intelligence required -- perceiving conditions in real time and reacting to them -- is incredible, and it's amazing that in the 2 million miles driven, there have been a handful of minor accidents, and all of them are the fault of other, human drivers; mostly rear-end collisions when the Google car is stopped at a light.
     But what interests me most is not the hardware or the software, but the wetware: how Americans will accept the the cars when they're introduced. Right now Google is talking about 2020, which is just around the corner. We'll do so grudgingly, I assume, given our worship of freedom, the open road. Born to Run, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in their '49 Hudson. "The road is life." How will we sit passively and let a silicon chip do the driving?
     The same way we gave up galloping horses for sputtering black Model Ts. There will be psychological hurdles. I noticed in the official Google video of the first civilians to ride in the car, the 12 are mostly senior citizens, with one middle-aged woman and one child. There isn't a male between the ages of 12 and 60, with the possible exception of one grey-haired guy who's blind. While that might be coincidence, it also might be because we expect Daniel Craig to be working the gear shift of his Aston Martin Vanquish, not puffing out his cheeks with his hands on his knees and watching the world go by.
     But it will happen, just because the cars are so much safer. Let's say you spend $1500 a year on your car insurance, and the insurance on a self-driving car is $150. Suddenly you can save half the cost of your car over its life expectancy. Most people will do it.
     About 32,000 Americans died on the road last year, in accidents that were caused by excessive speed, drunkenness, stupidity, texting, aggression, lack of care and general obliviousness. Not problems that will be associated with the Google self-driving car, though it will take us a while for us to see that clearly, to recover from what we can call Myth Hangover—the tendency to react to technology based, not on actual reality, but on stories.
     Look at security cameras. For decades, the idea of being recorded in public places was filtered through George Orwell's 1984, where a repressive government uses cameras to spy on citizens. That such cameras are actually used to catch criminals and -- for you fans of irony -- hold excessive and racist police forces to account, has been very slow to register. We're still scared of Big Brother.
     One person run down by a Google car will cause more fuss than 1,000 killed by careless drivers. The tolerance for harm from technology is all out of scale. We're still afraid the machines will get us. The Google self-driving car will play out as the latest installment of the John Henry saga. For those not up on your folk songs, John Henry is a steel driving man, pitted against a steam drill, vowing to "die with a hammer in his hand" before he lets the steam drill beat him down.
     And—spoiler alert!—die he does. The steam drill wins. The steam drill always wins. Paul Bunyan notwithstanding, loggers use chain saws instead of axes. The century when people drove their cars will be a misty romantic memory, like the era when they rode horses and dipped candles. Not that there won't be all sorts of blustery macho pushback from a culture that spawned the Fast & Furious movie franchise The self-driving cars will be portrayed as weak and tepid, like clip on ties and package vacation tours. But we'll accept them, just as no city worker breaking up an old patch of concrete with a jackhammer frets, "You know, it would be so much more spiritually satisfying to use a sledge hammer and a spike to do this." Get used to those Google bean cars, because you'll be seeing a lot of them.

21 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. It also means no more drunk drivers.
      Just drunk passengers in their own cars.

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  2. It looks like a future not so shocking, after all. Going to a fancy restaurant in a neighborhood with limited parking? Just set the car to drive around the block until you are finished. Or you can set your car to be a taxi for an hour or two, while you eat, or all night while you sleep. Your driverless Uber car will automatically leave the garage, when someone nearby requests a ride on their smartphone. Driverless cabs will wait at taxi stands, just swipe your credit card to gain access. And if someone tries to steal your car, set it to lock the doors, and drive to the nearest police station.

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  3. Driving can be fun. I currently live next door to Germany and getting out on the Autobahn is thrilling. I realized that I'm comfortable with driving speeds up to about 180km, while my husband feels fine up to about 210km. Driving there is nearly a sport and worth the mental commitment and physical energy.

    That said, driving in America is terrible. Not only are the roads a mess, but the speed limits are so low that you don't have to focus on driving - so people don't. I would love to have a self-driving car. It would make the time stuck in a car more useful and relaxing.

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  4. I think mass adoption of self-driving cars will be easier than most people think, especially among millennials. They're not big drivers anyway. Heck, I'm a tail-end boomer who grew up in a car-crazy culture, and I'd much rather spend my 90 daily commuting minutes reading, catching up on email or just snoozing.

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  5. Reminds me of an old Alfred Hitchcock or Twilight Zone show I saw as a young kid. About a car driving itself-I was afraid to be left in the car while dad stepped out at the gas station, for a long time after that. Other than that, I'm all for it. It will be safer and convenient and great for those who don't want to drive far. Always more convenient than any public transportation could be.

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  6. Well that photo shows a good example of gardening and brightening up a junk trunk in some yard.

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    1. Or, in this case, outside the art museum at Pomona College.

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    2. that's creative on their part

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    3. When I saw the large display photo across the top, I thought it was a at Farmer's Market selling plants.

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  7. Any reason for scrunching the lines together today?

    john

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    1. Hmmm...must be because I wrote it on Word Press, then transferred it (usually I write them in Blogger). Let me see if I can fix that.

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    2. There, that's better. Don't know why I didn't notice it myself.

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    3. Actually, I rather liked it scrunched up. But transferring stuff from one format to another almost always screws something up. Even my Kindle sometimes delivers screwy looking text.

      As to the driverless car: the first few years will be the hardest. After all, what boots it to give the finger to a machine that won't speed up or get out of your way when you want it to?

      john

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  8. Great column. Thanks for introducing me to the term "wetware" (I Googled it, of course).

    I think you're dead on about the psychology behind the acceptance (or rejection) of self-driving cars. I even see that irrationality in myself. One of my earliest nightmares as a child was that I was being driven somewhere by my father, and suddenly he somehow disappears, leaving me alone in a speeding car. There's that "what the hell is this?" factor that just will be hard to overcome in some people.

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  9. Thinking there should be a name for a self driving car, I consulted Mr. Google and was informed a couple of chaps have dubbed theirs an "autonomobile," presumably meaning autonomous car. Which doesn't really seem quite right. "Autodirigeremobile" would be more precise, but a too cumbersome concoction for general use.

    Perhaps there should be a naming contest.

    Tom Evans

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  10. You have no idea what this means to me. I'm at the age now where I have to take a road test every two years. I always do well but it reminds me that I could soon lose the privilege. All my friends now say they will go into senior living when they can't drive anymore. Now my thinking is that I hope they work out the technology so that I can benefit from it. Wow! Just wow!
    Barbara Palmer

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  11. These remind me of the Johnny Cabs in Total Recall(the Arnold version, didn't see the remake), except wo the creepy animatronic driver.
    The driving percentage is the exact opposite w my husband and myself. I do the majority of the driving, I just don't like being the passenger.

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  12. To me one of the more powerful images is a hive of driverless cars moving at 70 mph at the height of rush hour. As you pull down the entrance ramp and speed up, they make a space for your car to join, at speed. No more accordion slow-downs. As much as I love to drive - and I love to drive - the potential is staggering.

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  13. With around 40 years of experience in computing, I can tell you that one would have to be a risk taker to go with a driverless car. There is simply too much code needed to do this task and too many chances for something to not quite work right. Besides, how long would it take for Google and others to turn the cars into "AdMobiles" with nonstop advertising every minute you're in the car?

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  14. Who ever thinks millenials don't drive much, doesn't live in the far suburbs.

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