Tag: self-driving cars

Big Brother Wants to Run Your Self-Driving Car

As part of his 2017 budget proposal, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx proposes to spend $4 billion on self-driving vehicle technology. This proposal comes late to the game, as private companies and university researchers have already developed that technology without government help. Moreover, the technology Foxx proposes is both unnecessary and intrusive of people’s privacy.

In 2009, President Obama said he wanted to be remembered for promoting a new transportation network the way President Eisenhower was remembered for the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, Obama chose high-speed rail, a 50-year-old technology that has only been successful in places where most travel was by low-speed trains. In contrast with interstate highways, which cost taxpayers nothing (because they were paid for out of gas taxes and other user fees) and carry 20 percent of all passenger and freight travel in the country, high-speed rail would have cost taxpayers close to a trillion dollars and carry no more than 1 percent of passengers and virtually no freight.

The Obama adminstration has also promoted a 120-year-old technology, streetcars, as some sort of panacea for urban transportation. When first developed in the 1880s, streetcars averaged 8 miles per hour. Between 1910 and 1966, all but six American cities replaced streetcars with buses that were faster, cost half as much to operate, and cost almost nothing to start up on new routes. Streetcars funded by the Obama administration average 7.3 miles an hour (see p. 40), cost twice as much to operate as buses, and typically cost $50 million per mile to start up.

The point is that this administration, if not government in general, has been very poor at choosing transportation technologies for the twenty-first century. While I’ve been a proponent of self-driving cars since 2010, I believe the administration is making as big a mistake with its latest $4 billion proposal as it made with high-speed rail and streetcars.

The problem is that the technology the government wants is very different from the technology being developed by Google, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies. The cars designed by these private companies rely on GPS, on-board sensors, and extremely precise maps of existing roadways and other infrastructure. A company called HERE, which was started by Nokia but recently purchased by BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, has already mapped about two-thirds of the paved roads in the United States and makes millions of updates to its maps every day.

Traveling Into the Future, Despite Regulatory Traffic

Several science-fiction-like advances in transportation are currently underway. They may revolutionize the way people get around. Among the most exciting are hoverboards, driverless cars, and even fully re-usable rockets that could radically reduce the cost of space launches.   

Hoverboards are now a reality. You might even receive one as a present during the holidays. While they may not look exactly like the ones in Back to the Future, actual self-balancing, hands-free scooters are now on the market. Unfortunately, government regulations prohibit you from riding one outside if you live in the United Kingdom , or in New York City.   

Driverless cars are another promising technology. Just last week, Google patented a way for driverless cars to communicate with pedestrians, as well as a way for the company’s driverless cars to automatically unlock as their passenger approaches by recognizing the passenger’s Bluetooth device. As if the potential convenience of a computerized personal chauffeur weren’t enough, you may never need to fumble looking for your car keys again.  

Self-Driving School Choice

Over at Education Next today, I discuss how self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically expand educational options. Here’s a taste:

Self-driving cars will be able to respond to surroundings much faster than human reflexes, allowing for greater safety at much greater speeds. That will cut down on commute times, or allow people to work—or send their kids to school—further from home with the same commute time. Moreover, freed from the need to focus on the road, time spent commuting could be much more productive.

With commutes shorter and more productive, the distance that parents will consider logistically feasible will significantly increase. That could exponentially expand the number of educational options that parents consider within driving distance. Using Private School Review’s search feature, I found 12 private schools within three miles of my Arizona home, 34 schools within five miles, 69 schools within ten miles, 234 schools within 25 miles, and 304 schools within 50 miles. Now that’s choice!

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

Mobility Is Freedom, Not an Invasion of Privacy

Mobility is freedom, or at least an important part of it. Yet earlier this month challenges to expansions of that freedom came from, surprisingly, the Mises Institute of Canada, Reason magazine, and American Enterprise Institute. The issues are new automobile technologies, specifically self-driving cars and improved road pricing, and the challenges came from people who clearly don’t understand the technologies involved.

Self-driving cars, says Roger Toutant writing for the Mises Institute of Canada, will lead to “a national, state-operated, computer network that will be used to achieve an Orwellian level of vehicular control and information sharing. …The implications are ominous. In the future, private spheres will be invaded and all movements will be tracked.”

“Boot up a Google car,” agrees Greg Beato of Reason magazine, “and it’s not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership.” If you get into a Google driverless car, “you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that’s already hoarding every emoticon you’ve ever IMed.”

It is appropriate to question new technologies, but the answer is that’s not the way these cars work. None of the self-driving cars being developed by Volkswagen, Google, or other companies rely at all on central computers. Instead, all the computing power is built into each car.