Monday, July 01, 2019

When Driving Becomes Illegal

I've been reading a new book about autonomous driving by a couple of academics and the former CEO of Audi in Germany.  They back up their claim of their subtitle—"How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World"—with detailed statistics, economic analyses, and examples from research labs around the world.  Admittedly, the bloom has somewhat faded from the autonomous-driving rose in the last year or so, but this may be just a temporary lull in what looks to be a decades-long progression of the technology toward full Level 5 totally hands-off robotic driving. 

No one has yet routinely fielded a car that can handle all the roadway and environmental conditions a human driver can deal with, which is the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) definition of Level 5 performance.  But some companies, notably the Google-fostered Waymo, are coming close.  For example, Waymo claims that in 2017, its autonomous test cars racked up over 350,000 miles with an average distance between "disengagements" (occasions when the human driver takes over) of almost 5,600 miles.  Of course, one suspects that few if any of these miles were driven on the New Jersey Turnpike at night during a January blizzard, which is the worst driving conditions your scribe has personally experienced.  Nonetheless, it looks like cars that drive themselves are headed our way.

I remember talking about autonomous cars with a friend one day a few years ago, and I asked him under what circumstances he would give up driving his own car manually.  He answered, "When they pry the steering wheel from my cold dead hands."  I suspect that here in Texas especially, this is not an uncommon sentiment.  The advent of the automobile in the early years of the twentieth century fundamentally reshaped American life, especially for women.  The freedom to pick up and go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without bothering about train schedules or other third-party issues, was fundamental to the growth of the nation and molded much of its infrastructure to this day. 

At first glance, there is no obvious reason why the advent of autonomous vehicles would limit this freedom.  After all, if it amounts to nothing more than a kind of robotic chauffeur, your autonomous car's controls will do your bidding every bit as well as you could if you were driving—probably better, in fact. 

But buried on page 81 of Autonomous Driving is a hint that the transition from where we are now—with manual driving being the norm and autonomous driving the still-rare exception—to an all-autonomous fleet nationally may not be as smooth as you might think.  The reason has to do not so much with the fact that human drivers are bad drivers—most of them aren't.  But a manually driven car will lack the communications and infrastructure connections that are shaping up to be an essential part of the autonomous-car package. 

You may have seen simulations of how heavy traffic in both directions at a four-way intersection can flow smoothly without any traffic lights or stop signs, as long as the vehicles coming to the crossing are able to interact with each other and mutually work out subtle speed changes that allow collision-free traffic flow.  The simulators don't show this, but all it would take to snarl up such an ideal situation would be one comparative-lunkhead manual driver who was unaware of all the intense coordination going on around him, and tried to bull through the intersection like everyone else seemed to be doing. 

Enlarge that snarlup to nationwide proportions, and you can see why the developers of autonomous cars are concerned that the continued presence of old-fashioned manual drivers on the road may some day present a significant obstacle to the progress of autonomous vehicles. 

The authors propose some interim solutions, such as reserving special lanes on some roads for autonomous cars and even prohibiting manually-driven cars altogether in certain areas.  They say that the best solution, however, would be if "the transition to driverless cars is accelerated by means of legislation."  In other words, at some time in the perhaps not so distant future, they hope that legislators will summon the nerve to ban manually-driven cars altogether.  So much for my friend with his cold dead hands.

This plan is not without its aspects of class and socioeconomic implications.  Who drives the oldest, most decrepit cars nowadays, and who is least likely to be able to afford even a used autonomous car if the time comes that manually-driven cars are banned?  Poor people, that's who.  Of course, this notion assumes that the dominant model of privately-owned and privately-driven cars persists long enough to last to the time when Level-5 autonomous cars are widely available and affordable by most people.  There are autonomous-car proponents who claim that car ownership will wither away as cheap robotic Uber or Lyft-type cabs will make public transportation so appealing and inexpensive that even the poorest person will not miss their old junk manually-driven vehicle as they take advantage of the newer, cleaner, and more convenient and reliable autonomous cab services that will show up. 

That may make sense for places like New York or Los Angeles.  But what about small towns and rural areas?  Whatever the costs of autonomous cabs, they will be more expensive if the trips are farther, and for many rural and semi-rural areas, owning your own manually-driven car will probably be cheaper overall than paying for some autonomous-driver cab service that may never show up where you live at all.  Historically and on average, mass public transportation has never been profitable, and the economic case has yet to be made (to me, anyway) that the advent of autonomous vehicles is going to change that. 

Besides the economic argument, there is the principle that when I drive the car that I own, it becomes an extension of my personality, whether for good or ill.  This metaphysical connection between the human being and the vehicle is behind much of the present automotive advertising you see.  It's behind my friend's vehement opposition to letting go of the steering wheel to allow a robot to drive.  And I suspect that if the question of banning manually driven cars ever came up in the Texas state legislature, for example, what would happen next would leave our calm, logical German book authors with their heads spinning.

So the day may yet come when it will be not only inadvisable, but illegal, to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it yourself.  But if it does, it won't be without a struggle.
Sources:  Authors Andreas Herrmann, Walter Brenner, and Rupert Stadler wrote Autonomous Driving:  How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World (Bingley, UK:  Emerald Publishing, 2018).  An interesting side note which doesn't change my generally positive view of the book:  shortly after it was published, Stadler, who at the time was CEO of Audi, was arrested in connection with the Volkswagen emissions scandal (see my blog on this at, and released in October 2018 after stepping down from his post with the company.  I also referred to the Wikipedia pages "Autonomous car" and "Rupert Stadler."  A simulation by MIT researchers of an intersection with all autonomous cars can be viewed at

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