Look Ma, No Hands!


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Do self-driving cars represent a threat to the automotive culture so many people enjoy? Will autonomous cars always have a manual override function? How will these vehicles change the way we think about transportation in general? Tune in to learn more.

Narrator: Brought to you by Toyota, let's go places. Welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jonathan: Welcome everyone to Forward Thinking, the audio podcast. My name is Jonathan Strickland. I'm one of the three amazing hosts of this show.

Lauren: Hi, I'm Lauren Vogelbaum

Joe: I'm Joe McCormick

Jonathan: They are equally amazing but modest. Today we wanted to talk a little bit more about autonomous cars and for people who haven't heard the previous episodes or maybe are not familiar with the subject, Joe why don't you kind of explain what an autonomous car is.

Joe: An autonomous car is basically, exactly what it sounds like. It's a car that is autonomous, which means that it drives itself. So, you get up in the morning, you get ready for work, you go out and hop in your car and you close the door and you pop out a book and start to read. The car takes you to work without any control or input from you. You don't need to have your hands on the steering wheel. You don't need to have your foot on the brakes. You don't need to be watching the traffic and managing your chance to get out here on the road. The car drives itself.

This sounds like an amazing, wonderful, beautiful future to people like me because I hate navigating traffic and if I could just get in a car and sit down and read a book on the way to work, I can't tell you how much I would love that.

Jonathan: Yeah, as someone who does not drive, that might be a surprise to some people, but I don't drive. I would welcome a robot car overlord into my life happily so that I could get around without having to either take a very long walk to the closest train station, which I do. I mean that's not terrible. There are worst things to have to do. Or, I would have to depend upon the kindness of my friends who would give me a ride, and I really don't like doing that, because I don't want them to have to go out of their way just for me, right. So, I'm also very much looking forward to this, where I could have potentially a car I could just jump in to and say, hey take me to such and such and the only one who is inconvenienced is the robot, who cares about them.

Lauren: Right, right, right. I'm a little bit dubious about it honestly. I mean I'm excited about the prospect because, you know we live in Atlanta, we don't really have terrific public transportation, which is normally the kind of place where you can hop in a vehicle and read a book and not have to worry about the actual controlling the vehicle part. But, at the same time, I would need a lot of research and possibly anti-anxiety medication to give up that kind of control to a robot. I don't know that robot; I don't know where it matriculated.

Jonathan: Okay, that's fair. That's something we really wanted to talk about in this podcast is, there are people who might have anxiety issues about giving up control. That's perfectly legitimate. I'm not going to disparage people who have that. I have my own hang-ups obviously. I mean I don't drive, and the reason I don't drive is I get severe anxiety behind the wheel of a car. So, I have no problem with someone who gets severe anxiety with the idea of no one being behind the wheel of the car.

But beyond that, we also have especially in America, but I imagine in other parts of the world as well, this sort of relationship between the idea of driving a car and the whole concept of free will and taking charge of your life and being able to have the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. There are some views of the autonomous car that seemed to suggest that you can't have one and the other. That by having the autonomous car model, you give up this part of what it is to be part of the car culture. In America in particular, the car culture is a big deal.

We met before the podcast to kind of talk this over and Lauren you made a really good point. If you don't have a car in America, you don't have a whole lot of options of getting around, especially on the longer distances.

Lauren: Yeah, lots of places in Europe have really great trains that can take you very fast anywhere that you want to go. Or, if you happen to live in New York City or San Francisco, or a place that has a really good Metro then that's terrific. But, here in America we kind of built our country from the end of World War II on, on this concept of cars. Of the individual motor vehicle and just getting in and going and it's this very sexy, very stylized film epic idea.

Jonathan: Yeah, it's all about the individual. I mean that's again another very American kind of idea, you know put that focus on the individual.

Joe: And people have a relationship with their cars too. I mean a lot of that seems to come from the act of driving. You're spending so much time really manipulating this vehicle. You know you are using all of the controls on it and stuff like that. People name their cars.

Lauren: Oh yeah, I've named my car and I do enjoy driving, you know not in traffic. I enjoy driving perhaps at night when there's no one else on the road.

Jonathan: Yeah see I can't even imagine that, to me the idea of enjoying driving. I mean I understand where people are coming from with it, but it's something I don't identify with at all on a personal level. Yeah, you're exactly right Joe, when you spend that much time manipulating something, you can't help but form an emotional attachment to it. My wife and I are perfect examples of that. She spent years manipulating me and clearly, the emotional ties are tight.

Lauren: Or like the weighted companion cube. I mean I love that cube okay.

Jonathan: That's another good point. Yeah and I'm making light of it, but no it really is true. There are relationships with these vehicles and I think part of the problem some people have with the idea of the autonomous car is, they seem to think that we are going to enter into a world where we no longer have any control, and I don't think that's ever going to happen. I think that there's always going to be at least a failsafe option to switch to manual control, and because of that, I think in order to be behind the wheel of an autonomous car, even if it's in autonomous mode, you would have to be a licensed driver.

I can't imagine ever getting to a point where it will be all right for a group of human beings to get into a vehicle, none of whom have a license and just go. I just don't think that's going to happen.

Lauren: Well, I kind of hope that someday the technology gets to that point because how wonderful would it be for someone who is physically or visually impaired or you know, who has suffered from a stroke or for any other reason was not capable of getting a driver's license. It would be completely fabulous to have cars for that segment of the population.

Jonathan: Sure, they would have way more autonomy over their own lives.

Lauren: Oh, yeah, yeah, I mean it would be great. But, right now, the technology is certainly not anywhere near there yet and everything is very much so, like you could read a book but maybe you want to be paying attention to what the car is doing just in case something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

Jonathan: Yeah, right, right now I would say that we are pretty far along in the prototype stage. Obviously, we are not very far into the seeing it roll out into cars that consumer's would have access too. But in the prototype stage, we have already seen cars manipulate their ways through various cityscapes.

But they have done things like San Francisco; I mean Google has their fleet of autonomous cars they have been working on for a couple of years. They have been going through Mountain View, California, which is right there around the San Francisco area. That could be a pretty congested part of the United States. So, they have already started to prove themselves. I think there have only been a couple of accidents that have involved the Google cars. When you look at them in comparison to the number of accidents that happen with human drivers, it's tiny right now, and we would imagine that number would go lower even more as the technology advances and gets even more precise.

I think we're going to have some people definitely put up a bit of a resistance to the idea of adapting to autonomous cars. And, maybe we do reach a future where it's the only way you can buy a car if it is an autonomous car unless maybe it's on the used car market.

Joe: Well, I mean it may someday just be a safety issue, right.

Jonathan: Sure

Joe: You can imagine a future where we have the Member of Congress standing up in front of the House you know pointing at chart. This many percentages of accidents are caused by human error. We know that right now, what do they say, about 95% -

Jonathan: Yeah, 90-95%, it all depends on the survey you read.

Lauren: Yeah, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says about 95%.

Jonathan: Yeah, it's the overwhelming majority of accidents have human error as at least a contributing factor.

Joe: These human drivers are a menace. They are I mean they threaten all of us.

Jonathan: Let's take them out of the equation and put robots in charge. Yeah, I mean that sort of thing could happen. I imagine that it would be very difficult for any politician to float that by because they have to answer to their constituents. It's hard for me to imagine, in America, where people are willingly giving up that ability to drive.

Joe, you brought up another good point about how this could affect people who tinker with cars. Who likes to manipulate cars. I mean what happens when we get to a point where the cars are so advanced that they are beyond the Ken of your average hobbyist mechanic.

Joe: Oh yeah, a good friend of mine, he has an old Mercedes from the '70s and he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time. I mean he's always working on it. I somehow doubt that that is something that you could have the same level of confidence doing with a car that requires all this intense computing.

Lauren: Well, I think that eventually it is going to turn into the kind of issue where that's going to be the realm of hobbyists. I mean much the same way that these days, I have a Civic y'all. I mean I take it to a mechanic who I trust and I have no idea how that car works, quite honestly. And for people like your friend, they could probably still find the parts, put together their car, and maybe take it out too. You can rent time at a track right now if you want to go out and race your car. That would be pretty silly for me because I can get it up to all of like ninety-five miles an hour, not that I would know that from driving on my city streets.

Jonathan: After eighty-eight, it really starts to shake. But if you can ease it past ninety-three, it's smooth sailing.

Lauren: But, no I would suspect enter the realm of hobby.

Joe: Will we see a convergence of the auto shop tinkerer and the computer hacker?

Jonathan: That is a possibility. I mean again, when you're talking about something that is so important when it comes to the safety of the person who is sitting there. I mean there are two arguments to have, right. There is the argument of you should not mess with it because it could mean that you're risking your life. The other argument is, who is to say that the hacker isn't better at designing a system that is safe than the company is, because we've seen hackers design things that ended up making huge improvements to products.

So, it's an argument that is going to - well it's being made in all sorts of industries, but I'm sure in the car industry it will be way up there, because you are talking about something that is not just a symbol of freedom, but is a very powerful machine that could be potentially dangerous. So, I mean that's a good point. It's an interesting question.

Joe: Especially, I can imagine modifications coming in. If you're going to have competing proprietary navigation software, like different car manufacturers have their own software that they own and control and is not open source. I mean I can see that being scary.

Jonathan: Yeah, yeah

Lauren: I wonder if that's even going to be possible the way that - I mean because it's all going to have to interact with an infrastructure - with an internet of objects around cities that help cars decide where to go and when to go.

Jonathan: Yeah, I mean the ultimate build out of the autonomous car goes beyond the autonomous car. It goes into that internet of things that we've talked about in the past. This idea that you have sensors and devices that can react to real time dynamics situations that change based upon that. And, that the autonomous car would play a part in this larger system. In that case, yeah, you might have to require that everyone use at least something that can interface with the larger infrastructure.

Even then, you know how are you going to build that infrastructure out. Are you going to have it so that every single major metropolitan area has to roll it out the same time? Because if you don't, one cities infrastructure could be very different from another cities infrastructure.

Lauren: Yeah, and if I drive from Miami to Atlanta, what happens?

Jonathan: Yeah, these are some problems that we don't have the answers to yet, because we aren't there yet. But again, it's one of those things that we have to think about, because it could very well be that as you are getting to the outskirts of a city, your car starts to slow down. And the reason your car is slowing down is because it's actually downloading the latest update it needs to be able to navigate through the next city, because it's a totally different operating system. That's kind of crazy.

Joe: There is so much lag on this road.

Jonathan: [Laughs] right, it could be like warning, lag ahead. Yeah. We joke about it but really, unless you have a truly open source approach, or maybe not even open source, just standardized. A standardized approach across all manufacturers in all cities -

Joe: Traffic protocol.

Jonathan: Yeah, exactly it would be its own kind of - it would be literally traffic protocol. It would be that kind of a system that would tell cars how to get through certain areas. I mean it's something that has to be thought about.

Joe: So, I've got a question that I thought would be interesting.

Jonathan: Hit me Joe.

Joe: If we have autonomous cars, how efficient can we get in terms of all the driving we do? Imagine it's Saturday morning and I've got six errands I need to run today.

Jonathan: Okay

Joe: Can my autonomous car solve the traveling salesman problem and figure out, what is the most efficient way to get to all six of those different places I need to go?

Jonathan: Joe has just posed what is called a non-trivial problem. The traveling salesman problem, for those of you who aren't aware, it's exactly what Joe is saying. The idea is the traveling salesman who has to visit a certain number of cities, how do you plan out the most efficient route between all those cities and back home, so that the traveling salesman spends the least amount of time traveling. It sounds simple, but as you add destinations, it gets increasingly complex, because you have to take into account all of the different variations that could occur within that group of stops.

Joe: And then we add traffic into the mix.

Jonathan: Yeah, then you start adding in dynamic elements and now you've really caused some real -

Lauren: Computer headaches

Jonathan: Computer headaches, yeah. For a classic computer using a regular processor, the way this works is that the classic computer will work out one set of those variables and come up with an answer. Then it will go to the next set of those variables and the next arrangement of those stops. It will do that for every single variation it can until it is all done, then it will compare all of those times against each other to determine the right version. In which case, what you should do is, the Saturday before your Saturday, when you are going to go on these errands, you tell your car what you are going to do in a week.

Give your car a week to figure it out, and even then, with the classic computer, you are talking about thousands and thousands of hours of computing to come up with these answers, even with the fastest processors we have today.

Now, if you were to switch that to a parallel processor, like a Graphics Processing Unit, then you can do lots of calculations in parallel with each other. Come up with a bunch of answers at the same time. Put those aside and do the next set of parallel calculations and you really cut down on the amount of time it takes to finish this. But, it is a non-trivial problem. So, if your car can do it, that means we have reached a level of computing that is so amazing, that I'm not really concerned about leaving the house anymore.

Lauren: Right, right. What we're saying is, hopefully we will all have quantum computers on our dashboards in the future.

Jonathan: If you don't look at your car, it will get you to where you're going. Just don't observe your car, because by observing your car, you have changed the route.

Lauren: Heisenberg's uncertainty car.

Jonathan: That's right, yeah; people ask you where are you. I'm like; I can tell you how fast I am or where I am, but not both.

Joe: And make sure you don't accidently inspire the car to gain self-awareness.

Jonathan: No, you definitely don't want to do that.

Joe: Michael?

Jonathan: All right, so let's wrap this up guys. I mean this is a great fun discussion to have, because again, we're thinking about the future and what it's going to take for us to get there and the fact that it's not all technologies, some of this is culturally based, some of it is policy, you know. So it's fun to really kind of wrap your mind around, well, we see what the future could be, but how are we going to physically get there. These are fun discussions to have.

So, guys if you have any suggestions for future topics that we should tackle on Forward Thinking, I recommend you go to our web site, it's fwthinking.com. Check it out. We've got blogs there, we've got video series, and we've got podcasts. Let us know what you think. What get's you excited about the future? Let us know what we should be talking about next and we will chat with you really soon.

Narrator: For more on this topic, and the future of technology, visit fwdthinking.com.

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Duration: 17 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: autonomous cars, driverless cars