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Response to our story: Software developer says driverless vehicles will catch on if they’re cheaper

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Software developer Brendan Dixon writes in response to physicist Rob Sheldon who was recently heard to scoff at the idea that self-driving cars will catch on.

Rob Sheldon: The guys building the technology, like the fellow in Florida who died in a Tesla doing 75mph on Autopilot, are “first adopters”. They really want the future to be now. Most of us just want to get to work without the hassle of fighting the traffic. And honestly, it takes a lot of brainpower to shave 5 minutes off the commute.

Why would I use a safety conscious computer that will never bend the traffic rules? The car is a tool, not an end in itself.

And now,

Brendan Dixon: I do not agree with Rob (which is unusual — he offers insightful criticisms): Self-driving vehicles will arrive. But — and here’s the trick — they will not arrive as the techno-religious think. The long-haul trucking industry will most certainly be taken over by self-driving vehicles. A friend mine, a senior AI researcher for Paul Allen, and I were envisioning how small changes to long roads (e.g., sensors in the roadway, dedicated lanes) would ensure the arrival of such trucks. And such trucks will save immense amounts of money. The challenges for them are snow and rough terrain, but they will be overcome (likely, as I suggested, with external assistance to the vehicles — imagine a new “job” to put on / take off chains as self-driving truck cross passes).

It’s difficult to see if this will then extend into the city. Urban taxis could be overtaken. In fact, without such, Uber’s business model very nearly falls apart.

Their two top costs are a) cars and b) drivers, and not in that order. So, for them to succeed, they must eliminate the driver. Without doing so, Uber’s cost model becomes that of the taxi companies they desire to replace and their (so-called) disruption becomes acquiescence. Similar urban changes to those I noted for long-haul trucking — which cities, such as Seattle, are not far from — would seal the future for Uber (and Lyft).

They may be able to push cities to make such changes as a means by which to solve the insolvable urban transportation and density problem. Think of the ever-running cars Tom Cruise hopped into shown in the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, Minority Report.

Lastly, we (humans) are at war with our world. The Darwinist mindset (religious creation myth) deems it so. And, if we are at war, then we must win by power. Technology is the handmaiden of power. So, we will, as long as we hold the Darwinist creation myth, force technology onto the world. The push for self-driving cars (part of the larger push to automate all things — that is, to put the world at our beck-and-call) is a part of the package, just like food replicators in Star Trek.

While no technology lives into the dreams of its initiators (and this is part of the point Rob makes), nearly all technology does live on in some form. I suggested a couple above.

This is why I see the AI issue as deeper than most commentators think. It is not merely about computers or replacing jobs, it is the latest attack in on our war on the world. The response then must be two-fold: To reveal that the emperor has few clothes and to kill the false creation myth that pits us against the world.

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I (News) find the self-driving car hilarious. Do the engineers literally not know how important driving the car is – psychologically – for many people?

A friend used to work with women who spent about 30% of their earnings for the purchase and upkeep of the second car. But they didn’t care. It was independence from their husbands that mattered to them. They would work fifteen hours a week for that alone – in addition to everything else they did at work and at home.

Why is it that in Saudi Arabia, where women have few rights, they are not allowed to drive? Why do non-Saudi Arabians consider that a significant restriction on women?

I bet a lot of guys feel that way about cars too. That’s why I think Rob Sheldon is right about the private consumer response; the self-driving car will go the way of the vision phone.

Also, how would Uber and Lyft cope with horror movies about getting kidnapped by an evil autonomous car?

But Dixon is probably quite right about jobs like long-haul trucking and, say, trash collection and sorting. Stuff people don’t really want to do, now that’s a different story.

One thought: If we automate long-haul trucking, why not have separate corridors for tractor trailers travelling at high speed? Like railway trains used to do (and still do in many places).

Note: Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

See also: AI: A rational look at self-driving vehicles, and a cautionary marketing tale The lesson here is that technologies are not adopted because they exist. They are adopted if they serve a perceived need.

4 Replies to “Response to our story: Software developer says driverless vehicles will catch on if they’re cheaper

  1. 1
    FourFaces says:

    Self-driving cars will not arrive unless we solve the general intelligence problem. Silicon Valley and the high tech community will never figure out general intelligence because they are too evil and cowardly. It takes honesty and guts to think clearly enough to crack this nut. Someone will eventually figure it out but it’s a sure bet that person will not be a friend of Silicon Valley. It’s coming. Wait for it. 😀

  2. 2
    kairosfocus says:

    Depends on perceived safety. See, nuclear power, esp. Pebble Bed Modular Reactors. KF

  3. 3
    johnnyb says:

    I think that part of the issue with various disagreements on the subject are precisely what is meant by “driverless car”. The problem with the driverless car is not that it is somehow impossible for some car to be on some road, but for a generic car to be on a generic road that has all sorts of people on it doing crazy things.

    The suggestion that Brendan gives is not of “self-driving cars”, it is of a self-driving car *plus* a road built for self-driving cars. All-of-a-sudden, that is a completely different technology, and no longer requires the kind of AI that “driverless car” evokes. It’s more like a train than a car at that point, it just happens to use wheels, pavement, and sensors.

    Basically, I don’t think that anyone would be surprised for a *different* kind of technology to take hold that looks a lot like a car and doesn’t require a driver. Perhaps “driverless car” is even the proper term for it. However, this isn’t the same “driverless car” that people who don’t believe in the power of AI think will never happen.

  4. 4
    vmahuna says:

    I was told more than 40 years ago that the US Navy already had all the technology to land jets o aircraft carriers. It only requires the flip of a switch. Why wasn’t it done? Because MANUALLY landing an aircraft on a carrier is one of the most difficult and dangerous thing any pilot does. So the pilots needed to PRACTICE using the manual backup.

    The same is of course true for airliners. Takeoff, landing, and the tedious cruise are all well within the capabilities of existing flight computers. And so why don’t the airlines simply flip the switch? Because when a plane crashes the lawyers get less money if they can blame the crash on “human error”. If it can be blamed on parts or software, the lawyers get to sue the pants off the manufacturer.

    So the same is true for cars: if somebody gets killed by a defect in a driverless car (or truck), Ford or Honda or somebody is looking at a $20 million USD loss. Plus of course the expenses run up by their own lawyers.

    The only way around this is of course to pass laws that declare that faults in driverless cars do NOT make the manufacturers liable for nothin’.

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