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January 03rd 2017 print

Peter Smith

Doubts of a Driverless Denier

The future is settled, according to expert consensus, and we'll soon be getting about in vehicles directed by computers. If they're flying cars, so much the better. With all that global warming the experts know is coming, the roads will have washed away

metropolisA number of futuristic movies I have seen over past decades have us commuting in flying cars of sorts. Imagine all of that traffic we see at peak hour in major cities flying through the air. Hmm, I think to myself, that ain’t going to work. Some drivers are crazy enough when constrained by gravity.

Ah, but you misunderstand, says a far-sighted interlocutor. Computers will prevent crashes. What, I scoff! Computers will control millions of flying cars at a time? Yes, there will be no human flying drivers; it will all be controlled by computers. This will be the age of AI – artificial intelligence to you, Mr Neanderthal.

I want to know what’s happened to this airborne future. All this business of flying cars has subsided and apparently we are going to be still stuck on roads, albeit while sipping G&Ts in the back seats while computers do the driving. Never mind, progress is progress. According to Toby Walsh, a professor of AI, “we will look back in 20 years’ time and the era of human-driven cars will look like the Wild West.” Professor Walsh isn’t alone. I simply picked on him as the latest chap I had read on the subject.

My friends, or at least those around when the topic has come up, all think that driverless cars are the ant’s pants; an inevitable part of our bountiful technological future. They don’t seem to suffer from my scepticism. Let me be crystal. I don’t buy it.

On the cover of this latest article I read was a picture of a sleek, unaffordable (for most of us) Ferrari. In the driverless era I won’t care about it being unaffordable. I won’t want it. Who will? You get into a ‘box’ which delivers you to your destination. You don’t drive it! You don’t have the pleasure of driving it! You will sit in the back as us kids used to do when my dad drove us to the seaside, with anything but the car’s performance and looks on your mind.

Pretty soon no-one would buy Ferraris or Jaguars or Lamborghinis. They would buy different size boxes or perhaps just rent them or simply call them up from communal pools of boxes. So my first point. Please futurists don’t draw straight lines from the present. If driverless cars were to totally take over they wouldn’t look like today’s cars and wouldn’t be owned in the same way.

To my second point, what is produced is always informed by what people want not just by what can be produced. Now people’s preferences can be moulded to an extent but only to an extent. My guess is that young people and many middle-aged and older people like the driving experience and in as good a car as they can afford. Kindle and other electronic readers have been around for a while and made significant inroads into printed books but the switch appears to have plateaued. People like printed books. Even vinyl records have made a comeback of sorts. No matter how much you pack onto a smart phone people want to view sports on a big screen.

To my third point, why in the world do we think that people will be clever enough to develop and manage computer systems that will co-ordinate millions of cars at a time? They are not near clever enough in my experience. And, no, there are no caches of super humans around. Look in the mirror and be afraid, everyone is like you, susceptible to bungling. Back comes my pesky interlocutor: Everything is possible in this scientific age; AI will see to that. No it won’t, I respond stubbornly.

I admit that this view of mine is a gut reaction. But, for instance, who is going to put in the algorithms to deal with a child running in front of a car? Swerve, accelerate and quickly cut back in, might be the best response, if there no time to brake and there is fast approaching oncoming traffic; unless a car is immediately to the side or a mother and pram is also crossing the road ahead – but maybe it is only a dog? How much does a dog matter? Does the size of the dog matter? Is it possible to swerve left into open ground? Is there a deep drain in-between? Are people picnicking there? Will having one, two or three young grandchildren onboard affect the decision? Now think of hundreds of different scenarios and variables within which judgments and trade-offs are involved. Human brains can potentially take in each unique situation and react instinctively and often appropriately. Computers? There is no way.

And exactly how fast will these driverless cars go — the millions of them — and who will decide? And then there is hacking and please don’t tell me that our major traffic AI networks will be hack-proof. Unless, that is, only conservatives are hired to run the show. Allegedly, the Russians demonstrated how devilishly clever they can be in persuading left-wing (US Democrat) dimwits to give them their log-in details.

It is all very well to have experimental trials. The real thing will present insuperable problems. I predict it will never happen. At the same time, the technology and experiments will make cars and driving safer and that is all to the good. You see, I’m as ready as the next man or woman to embrace new technology. There’s not a Neanderthal neuron in my brain; at least not many anyway.

By the way, never discussed in this world of driverless cars are motor bikes (and bicycles for that matter). Or are they to become casualties of this brave new world? Even the most imaginative would surely baulk at the notion of driverless motorbikes. Hells Angels would suffer egregious reputational damage if those throbbing machines between their legs had balancing training wheels and were controlled by computer nerds.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Comments [12]

  1. Keith Kennelly says:

    You are right of course Peter. Most cars capable of navigating city streets will simply become unaffordable for most people and most cars are likely to be banned from citycenters anyway.

    Public transport just won’t cater to most people’s needs, so how will people get about and particularly those in inner city suburbs and city centres?

    How about a cheep hydrogen powered electric motor driven hybrid Bike/scooter with a curb weight of say 150kgs and a max speed of 20klm per hr?

    Yep we are investigating building one.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    I’m with you on this Peter and I want to take the subject a little further. Artificial Intelligence appears to be grossly overhyped and overrated, particularly by its advocates. According to my rudimentary understanding of computer programming it seems to me that computers can only do what has been programmed into them but are incapable of “original thought”. In spite of that, many intelligent, sensible people are genuinely afraid that AI will someday rule the word, enslaving or even eliminating humans. For that to happen, they would have to possess self awareness and all the other notions hitherto exclusive to humans. Some of my fellow Quadrant readers might correct me but they’d better have a watertight argument.

  3. en passant says:

    Peter,
    In 1972 I was interviewed by the ABC concerning how long it would be before computers could beat the World Champion at Chess. A Professor of Mathematics predicted less than 10-years. I predicted not in the last Century. We were both wrong as Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in 1996. The point is that the ‘experts’ always suffer from the sin of optimism (unless they need a Climate Catastrophe Grant, in which case pessimism is in order).
    One of the few interesting things I studied at university was an elective called ‘Worlds in Transition’. It was a brilliant futurist course that directed me to read Alvin Toffler, Paul Ehrlich, et al. It really stirred my interest and I have continued to follow the future ever since …

    There is one downside: not a single one of their cast-iron, put your life-savings on it predictions came true.

    Oh, I forgot to mention that my 15-minute on-camera interview was edited down to 2-minutes and made me look like an idiot as if I saidd exactly the opposite of what I did actually say. Ah, the ABC, some things never change …

    So, Peter, I am with you. I still have a plus score against the top level on my laptop Chess programme, but it is only 2016, so give them time …

  4. nfw says:

    Ah, a driverless vehicle. Another socialist leftie luvvie “progressive” wet dream, up there with the NBN. Think of a future world where the élites controlling the vehicles will tell us where and when we want to move. Of course the leftie luvvie “progressive” élites will have options in their own taxpayer funded vehicles which will allow them to control their own movements because they know what is best for us all. On the other hand, they may use the correct SI abbreviations for kilometre and kilometres, ie km (sic); kilograms, ie kg (sic); and the Australian abbreviation for kilometres per hour, ie km/h. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=road+signs+in+australia&t=h_&ia=images&iax=1

  5. Tricone says:

    I have some experience of developing business for new technology, albeit in a specialist area, not consumer commodities.

    Successful technology pretty much always starts off “everything is possible” then over time it finds its niche which is almost always smaller than the originators predicted.

    And so it will be with self-driving vehicles. Nfw is correct too. This will present an opportunity to top-level down controllers to exert even more power over the masses.

    But there will be unintended consequences … scope for individualism I hope.

    • ianl says:

      > “This will present an opportunity to top-level down controllers to exert even more power over the masses.”

      Yes. A huge step-up for those of the nanny state persuasion. It’s absolutely unbearable to even think about.

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    Tricone I’m banking on that. I banked on that with my first machine. A revolutionary packaging machine. Cheap, useful, useable, compact, low maintenance, easily fixed, mechanical, no electronics and 12 volt battery power. Now I’m starting to bank the results. Retail 10k.

    Radical thought, electronics when it comes to most mechanical operations can be slower and can be cheaply sustituted with not so old technologies which are more often faster, more reliable, cheaper to operate and have a longer operating life.

    Combine that with modern materials plastic, glass, alloys and presto innovation.

  7. pabloAU says:

    So if an accident happens, who will be responsible? Programmer? No one(it’s just ACCIDENT!)?
    Kids on the road etc. – well, chip everyone, chip animals and it will be programmable to make decisions re. “car”‘s action. Back to the first question – who is responsible if something goes wrong on the road?

    About the chess, was not the computer programmed to play specifically against Kasparov and helped by a team of chess analysts to do the job? Still an achievement, but within certain limits…

  8. Keith Kennelly says:

    The manufacturer and the programmer.

  9. GerardB says:

    At the moment with all the traffic congestion and speed restrictions I predict that there will be a reversion to mandating someone to walk in front of every moving motor vehicle, driverless or otherwise, waving a red flag and ringing a bell.

    Ho yay?

  10. Ian Matthews says:

    Take a drive through Epping in Sydney’s north west to experience the driver-less car in action. They’re everywhere. For a more adrenaline charged experience do as I do and ride a motorcycle through the same suburb at peak traffic times.