Monday, November 21, 2016

Can the Digital Future of Cars Save Lives and Time?

Despite all the positive changes the automobile has wrought, there are still a few big problems.  Leading the list is the rate of automotive fatalities and injuries—thousands of people die in car crashes every year, and many times that number are seriously injured.  Next on my list is the millions of person-hours wasted each year by people sitting in slow traffic—needlessly long commute times.  Add the carbon footprint of each car to that picture, and you can see plenty of room for improvement in the way we use machines to get around. 

At a one-day event called AutoMobilityLA held at the annual Los Angeles Auto show that runs through Nov. 27, New York Times reporter Tom Volek surveyed a number of digital technologies that promise to deal with all of these problems.  But as with many nice ideas, the difficulty is how we're going to get from here to there without making things worse before they get better.

Take self-driving cars, for instance.  According to Dr. Alexander Hans, a blogger at a site called, several studies have shown the potential for a self-driving taxi to perform the transportation work of six to ten privately-owned vehicles.  He also claims that the first widespread use of self-driving cars will be in fleets of self-driving taxis operating in restricted geographic areas such as densely populated districts of urban areas (think places like Singapore, where the first commercial self-driving taxi fleet debuted last August). 

Maybe these forecasts are right, but computer simulations leave out certain factors that may be decisive.  For example, there are lots of cabs in Manhattan, and there would be even more if the existing cab companies had not engaged in rent-seeking by restricting the total number of medallions available and fighting innovative unlicensed services such as Uber and Lyft.  But even if all the restrictions on cabs and taxi-like services in Manhattan were removed, I think you would still have a lot of cars clogging the streets, many of them privately owned. 

A city is a complex thing, and it is a mistake to assume everything else will stay the same if all you do is insert a change in the transportation mix.  That is why new freeways get crowded so quickly and the race to alleviate congestion by building more freeways never seems to be won.  Better and more congenial transportation attracts residential and commercial development until the new transportation mode is just as crowded as it used to be, and then people go somewhere else to repeat the cycle.

And even more important than alleviating commuting time and headaches is safety.  We are told that once most cars on the road are self-driving ones, that auto accident rates will plummet.  Given the fact that most auto fatalities are due to operator misjudgments and not mechanical failures, I can believe that.  Computers don't get drunk and try to impress their friends with their alcohol-impaired driving skills. 

But as the isolated but well-publicized fatality involving a Tesla quasi-self-driving vehicle showed last May, people can put more trust in a nearly self-driving car than is warranted.  Despite warnings to keep his hands on the wheel when the self-driving feature was engaged, Joshua Brown apparently was watching a video at the wheel of his Tesla when a truck unexpectedly crossed its path, and the system failed to recognize it in time to avoid a fatal crash.  Tesla has since made changes to their system to avoid such problems, but no system is going to be 100% safe no matter how much the software is tweaked. 

What the consumers and the auto insurance industry are waiting for is evidence that over time, truly self-driving cars that require nothing more from the passenger than to sit there and not mess with things, will lead to fewer injuries and deaths than would result if all those people were driving instead of sitting on their hands.  Despite all the self-driving car test drives and public demonstrations of the last few years, we are nowhere near the point at which a reasonably robust statistical study of this type can be made.  And until that time, neither insurers nor the general public will get interested in self-driving cars in a major way.

On the other hand, fleets owned by a single entity and driving in a specific well-mapped area can make real headway, and probably will unless entrenched interests stop them, as existing cab companies are trying to do with unlicensed services. 
The current situation reminds me of a scene I saw recently in a 2003 movie made mostly in Germany.  Some bicyclists come to a railroad crossing with a gate lowered across it.  Now in the U. S., railroad crossings with gates are completely automatic—some track-sensor gizmo lowers the gates when a train passes by and raises them afterwards.  But in this scene, a young man in an elevated booth next to the tracks finally looks up from the book of poetry he's reading and walks over to a crank and turns it by hand to raise the gate. 

There in a nutshell you have the two choices we face regarding self-driving vehicles.  I don't know what combination of union rules and tradition and exaggerated concerns for safety led to preserving the job of crossing-guard keeper in Germany some eighty years after the technology to eliminate that job became available.  But if in 2060, we still have medallioned cabs in Manhattan manually driven by immigrants who can't find a better job and 40,000 traffic deaths a year in the U. S., it won't be because the technology isn't available.  It will be because human organizations and political factors intervened to stifle the change for fifty years.  And if for no other reason than for the sake of those whose lives will be lost to automobile accidents in that time, that would be a shame.

Sources:  Tom Votek's article "At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Industry Ponders Its Digital Future" appeared on Nov. 17, 2016 at  Dr. Hans's blog appears at and is sponsored by Inventivio GmbH of Germany.  A report on the commercial driverless-car taxi service in Singapore appeared at  The movie in which the hand-cranked crossing gate appeared is "Schultze Gets The Blues" released in 2003 and written and directed by Michael Schorr. 

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