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Self-Driving Vehicle Consternations

I recently listened to an NPR podcast about the complexities of regulating self-driving cars. Among the nuances was the fact that there are different degrees of computer takeover, from subtle speed changes and stay-in-lane adjustments to full driving for designated-and-mapped highways only, to the car taking total control of the route, speeding you efficiently to Whole Foods when you were hoping for some salty fries.

Much of the discussion was centered around Tesla vehicles in San Francisco. (Not yet a pressing concern here in Filer, Idaho, so I listened with fascination. What is a Tesla anyway?) One of the problems was slow driver reaction time when the vehicle needed a human to take over temporarily, yet the driver was sipping on a gin and tonic.  In the Tesla system, the driver is supposed to keep their hands on the wheel regularly, and affluent drivers, being so very clever, have figured out that those little gym ankle weights, placed at 10 and 2, are a nice workaround. Soon, ankle weight purchases will flag the self-check assistant at Walmart just as if they were beer or spray paint.

Another problem was “hard braking,” where the car’s software interprets a shadow, distant object, or breed of dog incorrectly and slams on the brakes—much more forcefully than any person ever could, or that any person ever would for an overpass 200 yards ahead.

But unpredictable machine-driving behavior, such as this hard braking, harrowing as it might be for the vehicle’s “driver” and passengers, is also a problem for drivers of other vehicles. Particularly those behind!

So, the car manufacturers are working out the kinks, right? Well, this is another problem. If you try to test things out on a closed course, with no lives at stake, you don’t get the best data. So, the robust long-term solution, which is also a ruthless one and perhaps another problem, is to beta test the software updates on actual customers. Tesla’s “thank you” to their highest stake investors. And by inference, possibly a “screw you,” to others on the road. Imagine if cardiac pacemakers were developed this way: “Mr. Jones, thank you for picking up. We are calling you as a courtesy about a new software update that was necessitated by recent, um, events…. Mr. Jones? Hello?”

Maybe all this stuff will get figured out. I’ll admit, I’ve been skeptical of plenty of technology that I thought would just complicate life, create alarming dependencies, or numb the masses…come to think of it, maybe it won’t get figured out. I know it won’t take in Nepal, India, Thailand, or other Asian countries with similar road infrastructure and driving rules. I recently traveled in Nepal. Did you know that the massive, bustling city of Kathmandu has no traffic lights? Just a smattering of huge roundabouts with some traffic cops that are largely decorative. I don’t know if vehicle manufacturers could ever solve that flow problem. Which isn’t a problem at all for super-skilled Nepali drivers, but would be a massive one for coders. It would be a huge leap to own a spendy vehicle there anyway. You go, auto-rickshaws and Maruti Suzukis!

Inspired by what I saw in Kathmandu and Pokhara, I recently shot the gap skillfully exiting the grocery store parking lot. Nobody was endangered, and efficiency was exalted. No dogs were grazed either. But Mister Red Jeep honked at me. And then I remembered that here in the States, a honk is typically not an informative and polite action, communicating “I am coming through,” or “On your right,” but rather a perturbed reaction. In fact, horns, as used here, are quite unnecessary. A wimpy, impersonal replacement for yelling profanity or flipping one off. If I had truly done it the Nepali way, it would have been me honking, just before my acceleration, to kindly help two drivers understand that I have chosen to zip through here and you should be aware but it’s not going to be a problem at all.

I shared this little anecdote because one thing that Teslas and possibly other self-driving cars can do better than humans, when they aren’t screeching to a pointless halt, is zip in and out of traffic efficiently. And this is a problem also because most aren’t ready for it here. I confirmed this when speaking with someone who had recently been to San Francisco. I tossed out “How about those self-driving cars?” and got the response I wanted. I also talked to a friend who is a trucker, a few weeks later, and he confirmed the hard-braking situation on his fancy big rig. Research accomplished.

Anyway, speaking (earlier) of road rage, consider this: It would be one thing to yell profanities at a driver or flip the person off and have them motion back, hands up, I’m not even driving this thing! But it would be another thing altogether to be ticked off at a taxi driver that isn’t even there. How do you literally rage against the machine? One’s emotion might be like when you are frustrated with some genius prodigy that can’t tie his shoes or order at a drive-through, except this in this case it’s a genius computer with no freaking common sense. Disparaging comments like those often cast at Einstein, will be back in force.

Yet how would that be for the hijacked taxi passengers? With no driver to yell at, Mr. Road Rage would try to pin it on them. But they would still be processing the situation in the first place. It might start with something like “Hey, this Lyft doesn’t even have a driver! Should we even get in?” and later a more astute person might say “I saw that the driver’s picture was that of a microchip, but I thought they were just being weird. Then I saw that their name was ‘{Null}’ so I knew we were getting a driverless car but went along with it just for the adventure.” Meanwhile, the economist in the group would protest, “So who are we even paying?” and all along, a disappointed extroverted passenger never got a human stranger to which they could ask questions.

Speaking of Nepal (also, earlier, but I thought you’d enjoy if I jumped around): Nepal mountain roads are a different beast altogether. No driver there is ever going to turn over control of their diminutive Maruti Suzuki (which, yes, is somehow driven over rocks, rutted dirt and mud) or their Mahindra Scorpio (my next vehicle, I hope) to some boastful computer. Computers don’t work well when driven through muddy water or bounced around incessantly. And if they did, how would the software handle the fact that there is a huge excavator ahead, digging into the base of the road on which we are traveling, and a motorcycle is 10 centimeters to the right with a second passenger on the back and a toddler in the driver’s lap? (Just to be fair, the situation was completely legal; the driver had a helmet on.) Why would one ever trust a self-driving set-up when, as our driver spoke to us confidently, “I drive this road twelve years, jeep, bus, car. I have PhD in this road. Some people read at library. I study here, twelve hours each day. Yes, PhD in this road.” And when he scanned up the mountainside for current data, and then dodged rockfall, I realized, No self-driving Tesla is ever going to perform this maneuver. (Okay, I realized that later, spurred by this memory, while writing this bit.)

In conclusion, for me, I’m just glad about where I live. I’ll deal with the self-driving situation later if needed. When I do travel for work, I take planes and get a short ride to an unsophisticated town like mine—which doesn’t yet have Lyft or Uber, let alone Tesla owners. By the way, planes are only self-driving up in the sky, and I think we want it that way. Trained pilots, who are hugely more skilled than the average driver, take off and land these vessels themselves.

In second conclusion, speaking for my wife, if the self-driving cars can shoot the gap to use the left-turn lane, she’s all for it. That maneuver alone (to which small-town American humans seem averse) would likely outweigh the other risks. If self-driving rigs won’t do that, then she’ll be disappointed—as well as ticked off at a machine rather than a person, which doesn’t work for her because she values interpersonal interaction.

Copyright © 2023 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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