Never Stop Driving #86: Is It Time to Feel Bad for the Robots?

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Last weekend, vandals in San Francisco set a Waymo self-driving taxi ablaze. The car was destroyed. It seems this event was prompted by random crowd-induced fury, versus last year’s deliberate campaign in which protesters disabled autonomous cars by placing traffic cones on the hood.

I fully plan to bully AVs, too, should I ever encounter one on the road—in a game of chicken for a traffic opening, the robot must give way, right? But those folks in San Fran are on a whole ’nother level.  “We are seeing people reaching a boiling point over tech that they do not want and does not make their lives better,” Missy Cummings, director of the George Mason University Autonomy and Robotics Center and a former adviser to U.S. traffic safety regulators, told Reuters.

Who could have predicted this tech backlash in a region that spawned so much of it? I’ve been very clear that I love to drive, but I’m starting to feel like autonomous technology is unfairly getting a bad rap. If my kids are walking city streets late on a weekend evening while traffic buzzes around them, would I rather have robots driving or humans? Robots. Sure, they’ll make mistakes, but at least they won’t be high or staring at a screen while they drive.

Taxi Workers Alliance Protests Expansion Of Driverless Car Operations In San Francisco
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As so often happens, the problem is communication. Autonomous technology requires millions of practice miles, and some San Franciscans are pissed that they weren’t asked if they wanted to be part of a years-long experiment. The city is suing the state of California over the issue. Also, we now know that, during the initial hype, the tech industry made too many impossible promises, a massive collective miscommunication on its part. I recently read a terrific level-setting interview with GM’s former head of R&D, Larry Burns, in Automotive News. Burns, a Big Thinker whose team developed the skateboard chassis concept that underpins most of today’s EVs, thinks we’ll end up with some sort of very capable autopilot, like what planes use.

This weekend marks a special time in the Webster household because the Daytona 500, which marks the start of the NASCAR season, is on Sunday. Stock-car events might just look like a bunch of cars going around in circles, but there is so much nuance to the racing. To get the behind-the-scenes view, I interviewed my friend Bozi Tatarevic, a professional mechanic and NASCAR insider. You won’t believe the lengths teams go to for a win. Listen on Apple, Spotify, and YouTube.

I also recommend the new Netflix docudrama series on last year’s NASCAR season. Read our review of NASCAR: Full Speed here.

When you’re not watching the Daytona 500 this weekend, check out the latest and greatest from Hagerty Media:

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    Now that is road rage. The good thing it is one of the few road rage incidents where someone did not get hurt…only the robot.

    Larry, I too am a life-long driving addict and predictably enjoy your column.

    At 71, I am personally apprehensive about the inexorable shift to green power sources and how it will change some of the fundamental elements of driving I have enjoyed so much. But my fear for the essential health of our planet has greatly tempered my melancholy.

    My view on autonomous vehicles, however, is like yours. I have read the singular reports of stupid ‘robot mistakes’ but those correctable faults pale in comparison to the outlandish, repetitive and fatal driving stupidity exhibited by humans.

    Give me the opportunity on a nice, long road trip to share the highways and byways with autonomously controlled vehicles and my remaining driving years will be much more enjoyable.

    You could see this coming. It is not all hate for AI it is often because you can do it.

    I fully predicted road rage where people will do things to make AI cars react and not always in good ways. many will do it because they just can.

    If you can swerve to make a car move or get out of the way people will do it. Those in that other car are at the discretion of the programmer not riding with them.

    There was a question going around. if a Autonomous car encountered a child on a bike. It only has two options the computer could come up with solutions to. One is to hit the child and possibly kill them. Or Run the car off a cliff to save the child but kill those in the car.

    The programer is the one who decides who lives or dies. Also if there was another solution it may not be used as the computer was not programed to recognized it.

    Also who is at fault for the deaths. Driver, Bike rider or programer?

    A real Twilight Zone kind of dilemma.

    Computers are humans. They are programed by humans and are not perfect or will ever be perfect much like real humans. Failures will happen no matter what.

    I have a car now that Auto brakes at shadows. It is a real thrill when you don’t expect it.

    What?!? Big tech, or any big biz, not being fully transparent or even covering up the negatives of their product? Let’s ask ChatGPT tell us how to feel about that!

    In the history of any technology advance, can vs should is the question that matters. Because, like tooth paste, once it’s out of the tube it is impossible to put back in.

    Put the toothpaste in a ziploc bag and it will be usable 😀

    Limited access dedicated lanes (or even roadways) with self-driving I can see logic in. I don’t see why it is desirable to try and make this work in places where bicycles and pedestrians are a stray element. In those places the onus should be on the human driver to be attentive and safe.

    If a network of isolated highspeed self driving lanes cuts across a major urban area and the tech delivers –it will become the preferred route of many. I can see 4-6 lane roads losing a middle section to this –like streetcars have in a city near me*

    *but it has to be done better than the streetcars where random human drivers can’t just mess it all up cutting in front as they wish. Not sure how you do that (and my hands off the wheel doesn’t appeal to me at all).

    I eschewed your Larry Burns link in favor of rereading some Bob Lutz interviews. Good luck trying to “sell” this nonsense.

    Tell your Kid’s to put their phone’s down.
    If your worried about them walking around on the streets.
    ” hello Big Red Truck”.

    I may not be a “Big Thinker” like Mr. Burns, but comparing the environment an autonomous vehicle (AV) must navigate to the environment an airliner’s auto-pilot must navigate is like comparing ‘Mario Kart’ to ‘Pong’.
    A friend that recently graduated from one of the country’s top engineering schools, worked at an AV start-up for a couple of years. She said the problems to be solved in the AV space are so enormous that she doesn’t believe she’ll see L5 autonomy (fully AV operation) in her lifetime.
    The idea of a separate, dedicated, AV-friendly infrastructure makes sense to me, but how will governmental agencies fund – and taxpayers pay for – such a thing? Roads are not cheap: my hometown recently announced a $17MM project to realign a downtown street to better accommodate bikes/peds/transit. Length of the street? Less than two miles, so $8.5MM per mile.

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