autonomous driving is overdue

April 29, 2020 /// issue no. 120

Over the course of the last few weeks I have observed an interesting pattern. Though highway traffic has either been relatively light or similar to a Saturday morning, the percentage of speeding driver’s on the road seem to have increased significantly. Either those willing to travel in a pandemic have a higher risk tolerance or there is an opinion that they won’t get caught. Surely people aren’t in more of a rush than they were before. A quick google search proved my theory. The San Jose Mercury News reports that in the last month, year-over-year 100mph+ speeding tickets increased by 87%. Keep in mind that is with fewer drivers on the road.

When I first heard that they were attempting to make self-driving cars a reality, I was immediately turned off. As a car enthusiast and a commuter who prefers to drive to the office over public transportation, it felt like futurists were trying to take my joy away. As a former software engineer, I also thought it would be completely impossible to get it right. Every driver on the road that isn’t me is completely incapable of controlling a motor vehicle. When they used to let me write code, a bug I shipped meant we would have to make some corrections to someone’s brokerage account. A bug in an autonomous-driven vehicle’s software means someone dies.

This narrative bore itself out as a Tesla Model S in semi-autonomous autopilot mode struck a semi, killing the Tesla owner. Some years later, a prototype self-driving Uber killed a woman in Arizona. Then as time went on Cruise prototypes started invading the streets of San Francisco. Every time I got near one it seemed they wanted to crash in to me. I even tweeted this at Cruise with a license plate number before I realized they all had the same manufacturer’s plate number from the DMV.

I have always been an old soul. As a 15-year old, I wanted my first car to be a ‘68 Camaro. I live in a house built in the mid-1960s because I love the style. I am completely obsessed with the look and sound of vintage Porsches. I rather embarrassingly sent a scathing reply to a recruiter at a self-driving startup because one of their cars had nearly side-swiped me the morning before they had reached out. And now my curmudgeony (carmudgeony?) self has turned a corner.

People used to get around on horses and donkeys. Now we just sit on our asses listening to podcasts. An out of control drunk cowboy did not have the potential of taking out a family stagecoach in a head-on collision on Christmas Eve. Computers only do what you tell them to. People do what you don’t want them to. And they break the rules intentionally. Speed is dangerous in the wrong hands and more wrong hands have control of this speed than necessary. Letting a car drive you on your hour long commute honestly isn’t the worst thing in the world. I hope Rivian’s 2030 van has room for a shower and a Peloton.

The future of driving internal combustion engined vehicles may soon be coming to an end. Governments are outlawing their production and as much as you or I want to fight the man, there is a point when you have to lose a battle to win the war. If we want to make self-driving a reality we have to go whole hog. None of this will work if we cannot put in the right infrastructure to get to Level 4 (no-human intervention) or Level 5 (full) automation. The human element, the error prone element, is what needs to be removed completely. This is a job for only the best and brightest engineers with full support of industry and regulators.

You see, driving is a sport. The new trend of automotive country clubs will be more than a trend in the future. Enthusiasts can be driven by their self-driving EV car haulers to the track and then burn fossil fuels only available at the raceway. Gasoline will have lower demand and abundant supply. More people that realize they actually love driving will take up the sport. The performance car will be celebrated by motorsport enthusiasts and testing the limits of a car will be normalized like we look at a round of golf. I look forward to the day amateur racing is a commonplace weekend diversion requiring skill and patience.

Coffee time,

daily automotive addiction.