Self Driving Cars Are Coming

The topic du jour during Christmas festivities was the self-driving car.

My brother-in-law manages the New Jersey division of a major, international architecture company. They do office buildings in Times Square and corporate headquarters out here in the burbs. He recently attended a presentation about how the firm should deal with the upcoming changes to automobiles and was like a fanatic on the topic. He showed us the CEO’s power point presentation on self driving cars after Christmas dinner.

The firm is convinced that we’ll be fully transitional into an Uber-like shared self-driving car system in the next ten to fifteen years. The first changes will happen for trucking in five years.

And it’s much more than self-driving cars. People won’t own their own vehicles. They will call for a car, like an Uber service, and then chillax inside the vehicle, even taking naps, while the car takes you to work or on vacation.

My BIL’s architecture company is already designing their office parks with this future in mind. For example, they are building parking lots with external ramps, rather than internal ones. That way the ramps can be easily eliminated and the parking garages can be converted to other kinds of space.

On Christmas, everybody had a different reaction to this discussion. My parents were sad that they might not be around when all this happens. They’ve finally had to stop driving into New York City for their ballets and operas, because too many people were beeping at  my dad as he drove 30 mph on the West Side Highway. They take the uber in now, but hate paying the fees.

I liked the idea, because I don’t give a crap about cars, and my astigmatism is so bad that I can’t drive on highways at night anymore.

But my in-laws hated it. They are Mid-western, and cars are a big part of their lives. And now they live in a shore community in North Carolina; they are afraid that the uber services won’t be that effective near them.

If some people get are all “Obama is steeling our guns” over gun control, imagine how they will get when we tell them that they can’t drive their trucks on the highway anymore.

40 thoughts on “Self Driving Cars Are Coming

  1. I get the case for self driving car technology. I don’t get the case for why we will all prefer to rent from a big company that owns all the cars. If you use the car a decent amount wouldn’t it still make sense for both total cost and convenience reasons to buy your own self driving car?


  2. prediction is hard, especially about the future..

    there’s a lot of wild speculation about self-driving cars. Agreed, they have the potential to change things, but the first requirement is that they exist. Currently they work only in good weather and good roads which have been mapped down to the last inch. Expanding to poor weather and bad road conditions on unmapped roads is a tremendously difficult problem which is still far from being solved. I speak as a computer scientist with experience in ‘expert systems’ and AI.

    Working on AI in the 1980s we ran into Moravec’s Paradox – “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”
    That describes the situation today as well. AlphaGO is a tremendous achievement but it depends on a perfectly defined world, that of the game rules.

    It’s a good thing the BIL’s firm is still building the parking lots, as they will be needed for the foreseeable future.. is my prediction 😉

    meantime, Happy New Year to you and family !


    1. My sis is on the board of a denominational old folks home. I have been trying to sell her on the idea that this matters to her in terms of their building decisions. They have been used to the geezers giving up their cars at about 80, and parking is provided with that in mind, but damn! When a ninety year old can get into her car and say ‘Safeway, Jeeves!’ we are seriously screwed…
      We tried to future proof our own house when we rewired by putting a forty amp circuit to an outside box for our future PHEV, and it is our assumption that we will own the sucker. Maybe we are wrong – even though we live a quarter mile from Metro, the missus is regularly taking Lyft down town.
      One interesting thing is how the incentives on commuting change. We have something sort of like a congestion charge in Dee Cee with the twenty-five dollar parking fee, with Uber that goes away. So people can consume the street space for no charge, congestion is an upcoming problem. New York is way ahead of us here:


    2. I know of the principle behind “Morevec’s paradox” (though I didn’t know it had a name from studying the brain’s capacity for perception (and mobility and language recognition). But, I am seeing a significant ramping up of the success of AI systems in all those fields, as compared to human abilities. Twenty years ago, language researchers would introduce the amazing capacity of the human brain by showing how easily we could understand, for example, the word “no” compared to a computer. But now, Alexa can certainly solve that task satisfactorily, in real world situations, which include noise, accents, intonations, . . . . Image recognition doesn’t seem to be quite at that level yet, but, AI is chipping away at the utility it can add, as compared to [expensive] human capacity.

      Cars are special because of the legal entanglements and potential dangers (Alexa, for example, can’t make 911 calls, because of the legal requirements, but, now, with connections to other devices, even those requirements might be circumvented).


  3. I’m very excited about self-driving cars, as I learned to drive late in life (early 30s) and I can’t say that I’m proficient. I can drive competently to my usual destinations around town, but novel situations throw me for a loop. Plus, I wear a heavy prescription and my peripheral vision is total garbage. I’m probably never going to drive the interstate or drive to the big city or even drive to IKEA, but a self-driving car could change all of that.

    I’m also very excited about self-parking, because it seems like exactly the sort of skill that a machine can do better than a person.


  4. I’m skeptical about self driving cars. Who will own them? I’m not convinced they will be less expensive than, say, taking a taxi everywhere today.

    They’ll also park somewhere. There will still be rush hour. It may start at 2 am, with untenanted cars, but it will still exist. I predict there will be complaints about car storage areas outside the city. And is it cheaper to park a car, or just to drive it around? It may not cut down on automobile fumes.

    There will still be a rush hour. Uber has surge pricing. There will still be fees.

    And then there’s the ways self driving cars can be used to restrict access to the world. My kids can take Ubers, but they aren’t old enough yet to rent cars. Will self driving car owners want to rent their cars to people under 25? Felons? People who live too far from the city?

    And will parts of the country be cloaked on a need-to-know basis? After all, celebrities in California already tried to fight against aerial photos of their properties. Will private roads show up in the databanks of the self-driving cars? Or will there be places so exclusive you literally can’t get there from here without an invitation?

    Already, I know of roads that aren’t in the databanks. Will passengers be able to override cars? I doubt it.

    But it is an excuse not to build adequate parking.


  5. I don’t like the idea of self-driving cars because of traffic/congestion. I’d like to see more public transportation infrastructure, personally. I like to think I’d be more open to public transit if there was any closer to me and if there were sidewalks in my neighborhood. 😛


    1. Wendy, take another look at the NYT article I blurbed before:
      Traffic and congestion are already happening with Uber drivers, and by the way the brain surgeons in charge of tolling on my nearby freeway have determined that YOU ARE A CAR POOL IF THERE ARE TWO IN THE CAR so if you take an Uber you beat the toll and avoid paying for parking. Best way to beat traffic and congestion is tolling, I think, and it doesn’t matter whether the car which pays the toll is self-driving or not. I think it will be swell when my 95-year-old mother’s slightly younger friends have less angst about giving up their licenses!


  6. “He showed us the CEO’s power point presentation on self driving cars after Christmas dinner.”

    You do know how to party.


    1. Loved it. My teen said that she still likes spending time with her family, and what we do is talk, talk, talk, all the time (with evidence). Seems like your family is similar.


  7. My parents were sad that they might not be around when all this happens.

    My thoughts on self-driving cars go along the same lines. Having had to tell somebody they could not drive is not an easy thing to do, especially when there is no alternative to driving except a taxi. (Uber wouldn’t work because learning to use a smartphone by that point wasn’t possible either.)


  8. As a political scientist, it’s the last line of your post that interests me: “imagine how they will get when we tell them that they can’t drive their trucks on the highway anymore.” Because I can’t imagine that – I don’t expect a politician to say – look, you won’t like this, but it will be good for you. I don’t see a government around that has the balls to take away people’s ability to drive on highways.

    As such, I am skeptical of the timeline here. We may perfect the technology in the next few years, but I think there will be a pretty long transition time on this – you’ll have to pry the steering wheel out of some folks’ cold, dead hands. There will be self-driving cars on the road with people driving – which will be interesting as I understand dealing with people driving cars is one of the biggest problems in developing self-driving cars as we’re so damn unpredictable.

    Maybe I am wrong, but to think that our political system will ban driving on highways or any sort of driving seems pretty outlandish to me.


    1. I am curious as to which way the politics will push. Some millions of people earn a living by driving and they vote. I think there may be a bigger push to ban it than require it, at least for the next couple of decades..


    2. I don’t think driving needs to be banned, but if drivers are consistently more dangerous than self-drives, the insurance costs will be the factor.


  9. So many factors ignored -by so many people, especially plutocrats: weather, road conditions, maps, rural contexts and their connections to cities, hacking risks, economic costs, job loss, political reactions, political costs, class consequences, inequality dynamics, and of course the situation of public transportation.


  10. I think car service and self-driving cars will definitely transition in the cities — NYC already had the car services didn’t it? now there’s a more accessible form in uber/lyft, and eventually (I think closer to 15 years) there’s self-driving cars. A couple years ago I started hearing that younger people were relying on uber, not bothering to own a car and pay insurance and pay for parking and drive. That was the transition with phones, too, that young people started using them as their primary communication device. There’s a growing number of teens who aren’t taking the time to learn to drive when in high school.

    I think that car service/self driving cars can be compatible with public transportation — though I don’t know if either will be designed considering the longer term coordination. A big problem with public transportation is that it works best in highly dense urban environments (even when it works). The urbanists keep pushing for developing that model in cities that weren’t designed around it in the first place (i.e. the pre-car cities), but I think there are many people who do not want to live in dense urban environments, who want more quiet, and privacy, and space. self-driving cars could be a solution to the “last miles” problem of public transportation — like Steve’s commute. Instead of driving or being driven, the car would take him there, drop him off, and then go off to serve someone else’s needs.


  11. We used uber extensively in Paris — more than I would have preferred. But, it was boiling hot, and walking and overheated public transportation did not sound pleasant. If it hadn’t been so hot, walking would have been a much better way to enjoy the city.

    I also used lyft extensively in Anaheim, which is one of the world’s most walkable cities. A couple of times, my friend, who is more of a walker than me would feel guilty and look up routes, to see if she was being lazy. But then, we’d look at the route and see that it went on and off freeways or was on huge divided roads. Ugly and unpleasant. We didn’t miss out on anything not walking in Anaheim.

    The two cities are examples of pre-car and post-car, and I don’t see Anaheim being turned into a series of urban villages, ever.


  12. PS: Who in this thread (are we all aging?) has a land line? We do, though we are not entirely sure why. But then, we even have a black, 1980’s, att rotary dial phone (of the kind you used to rent). My mother kept it and brought it for my son when they moved — it still works fine.


      1. Hey! I am 68. And, by the way, our land line feeds a rotary phone on our kitchen counter thankyouverymuch.


    1. Wow Dave — that makes you closer in age to my parents than you are to me, and I am aging, apparently. Has the rotary phone always been yours? Ours (and it has been gifted to my son) was never mine. Also not the slide rule or manual typewriter. But the floppy fisks were mine.


    2. bj said:

      “PS: Who in this thread (are we all aging?) has a land line? We do, though we are not entirely sure why. But then, we even have a black, 1980’s, att rotary dial phone (of the kind you used to rent).”

      We have a landline as part of a bundle with our internet–$75 for both.

      It’s mostly just for emergency purposes–the number is in my cell phone, but I don’t know it. (Not kidding!) A lot of times, my cell ringer gets left off off, so the landline is a backup way for my husband to get hold of me when I’m home. I don’t give out the landline number. When my husband is home, I don’t even answer it when it rings, because it’s always telemarketers or debt collectors for parties unknown. I get Russian telemarketers on my TX landline, which is a trip.


  13. There’s also the unfortunate fact that Uber is burning through cash. They are reportedly losing $3 for every $1 they make.

    I can’t find a quick answer online as to whether car-sharing companies are turning a profit. I find quite a few articles claiming it’s possible, and many mentioning BMW’s recent pay-per-minute model. Then again, I find articles pointing out many local car-sharing operations are stymied by state regulations regarding insurance.

    If you assume most of the “sharing economy” runs at a loss, it’s hard to believe that somehow it will suddenly spring into life at a reasonable cost. Would everyone be enthusiastic about the prospect if the fees per mile were at least 4x Uber’s current rates? Because that’s what Uber should be charging to make a profit, and Uber only has software to run. They’re not maintaining a fleet of rolling AIs, and thus don’t deal with the prospect of a software-caused death. Nor do they deal with maintenance, including cleaning, etc. So 8x Uber’s current rates.

    As to relieving traffic congestion, isn’t this the school of thought that regards everyone else’s auto travel as frivolous and non-essential, while one’s own is necessary? Rush hour into Boston starts at a tremendously early hour these days. The tech companies on 128 started scheduling shifts around the clock due to traffic decades ago. The factor driving congestion in the inner cities is the desire to be in the inner cities for business or pleasure. All I can see happening with “congestion limiting fees” is another layer of fees that will hit everyone below the top 10% by income really hard, without doing anything to limit traffic.

    If I had to bet, I’d bet against self-driving cars.


    1. As to relieving traffic congestion, isn’t this the school of thought that regards everyone else’s auto travel as frivolous and non-essential, while one’s own is necessary?

      It gets even more vicious when people who only travel by auto look at other methods. As near as I can tell, the bike lines installed around here have not increased travel time for cars a bit and made things much easier for bikes and pedestrians (because they narrowed the roads, traffic goes more slowly on what used to be very wide roads and cars going close to the speed limit are more likely to stop at a crosswalk*).

      * The cars do go slower on a few formerly-fast stretches, but I don’t think it has increased travel times because we’re only talking about distances of less than 1/2 a mile. Over that distance, the difference in travel time between 25 MPH and 45 MPH is trivial and, I think, offset by smaller pile-ups at lights.


    2. Well, the hope is that if 128 has a forty dollar toll for a vehicle, that the so-far-mythical-rainbow-unicorn twelve person van pool will start to make financial sense.


    3. I would actually pay more for Uber, but 2x as much, not 4x as much.

      When we need Uber, we really need Uber, and don’t have any other choices.

      The main value I see in Uber currently is not just price but speed and convenience–you can get Uber much faster and more reliably than you can get a taxi. I’m a veteran of pre-Uber taxi service, and in many parts of the country, taxi service by phone stinks. (We recently had great experiences in Seattle, though.) The last time I checked (and this was pre-Uber) our entire community was served by about 5 yellow cabs, and smaller towns don’t even have taxi service at all–at high demand times, that’s just not enough taxis.


    1. When have we ever been able to stop a technology because it will cause us to “lose millions of well-paying jobs”? Kind of a rhetorical question, but maybe some of the people here have an answer.


      1. I agree. All sorts of technological changes happen and we can’t stop them. I guess I am a technological inevitabilist. Instead of being in denial, we might think about how to make this change better. Maybe instead of having hummer-sized vehicles, we can have smaller ones, smart-car sized.

        Also, I keep thinking about the Doctor Who episode Gridlock, one of those episodes that everyone else hated but I kind of liked. 😀


      2. Well, I´m not limiting my thinking to the US, since I live in Mexico City and am a comparativist. Without certain provincialisms, taking into account more contexts (very complex contexts), there is no room left for neither technoutopianism nor “inevitabilism”. What we should be thinking about is threefold: real world circumstances, relative to the hows; the socioeconomic consequences where implemented, and the economic-political resources to deal with them.


  14. You would bet against self-driving cars in the next 20 years? or forever? I would absolutely bet that in “forever” (maybe our kids’ lifetimes?) there will be self-driving cars.

    I am less certain about the more short term horizon.

    Uber’s costs aren’t about self-driving vehicles. I don’t know how expensive self-driving will be — but I think the replacement of human labor makes the economic incentive for self-driving very high. We have a model in the US based on the idea that people like to drive themselves, a culture around the enjoyment of cars. But, what percent of people actually enjoy driving, as opposed to the conveniences associated with getting from point a to b with minimal effort and coordination?


    1. bj said,

      “But, what percent of people actually enjoy driving, as opposed to the conveniences associated with getting from point a to b with minimal effort and coordination?”


      Also, I think it’s clear that more people enjoy being on their phones in traffic than enjoy driving.


      1. “Also, I think it’s clear that more people enjoy being on their phones in traffic than enjoy driving.”

        Yes, this. I would welcome self-driving cars if only for this.


  15. There are high-end cars that already do some self-driving–including steering and passing on highways:

    I think it will happen that way, with cars having more and more self driving elements, until some cars are entirely self-driving. And the wealthy elderly will be a major driver of this.

    Also almost 40,000 people died on the roads last year. Even assuming serious safety problems with self driving cars, which I don’t assume (automation has had its down sides in aviation–some crashes have been caused by autopilot–but many more prevented, with air fatalities drastically down overall) there will be tens of thousands of lives saved. Per year! This will also start gradually, with more cars having steering and braking assist. I don’t have time to check the numbers, but they numbers of lives saved will be on par with–or higher than?–the number saved by antibiotics and vaccinations. And those benefitted most will be young people, for whom accidents are a top cause of death. It will by itself raise life expectancy. I don’t see how anyone can justifiably oppose it in those grounds alone. The benefit to humanity on a per dollar basis vastly exceeds that of the latest chemo drug.


    1. So far, though, the self driving cars on today’s roads are getting into accidents at five times the rate of conventional cars:

      It seems it may be the cars don’t obey the “real” rules of the road, i.e. the sort of mind-reading humans do as a matter of course. If you think about it, humans violate the rules of the road on a continuing basis, from speeding to cutting people off, or allowing other drivers to disobey the rules on who has the right of way. We can tell if a car’s going to blow through a stop sign. A driverless car can’t.

      I’m obviously taking the negative side of this argument. However, I really don’t see it happening. I don’t see who’s going to pay for it. Yes, of course the car companies and tech companies are lobbying the heck out of politicians, because it would be a huge market. As tech companies specialize in locking customers into one platform, I believe any products will be priced at the very edge of affordability.

      Perhaps it would be appropriate to try some real world experiments. Declare Manhattan an autonomous car zone. No private cars allowed. If you want to drive into New York, you must park your car in parking areas outside the city and use an autonomous car service or public transportation.

      Manhattan’s the best place to start, as it is so very expensive to have a car in the city. Taxi services could be offered the opportunity to convert their taxi fleets into autonomous car fleets.

      There are advantages to this. Huge swathes of the city could be turned into pedestrian zones. Some streets could become urban gardens. Every entry through the autonomous service could be logged, with facial ID on file.


    2. We have to be realistic about roads and their elements, their actual conditions, the possible future of infrastructure, etc. Air and ground do not represent the same challenges.


  16. Ha ha. I love the idea that facts about safety are going to sway people’s opinion about policy. What a quaint idea. Not to mock, but seriously, politically, it seems like we live in a post-truth world. Facts don’t matter for large segments of the population about climate change, guns, etc. So arguments using facts about safety and cars are not going to sway people who love their cars. And lots of people love their cars. Don’t get me wrong – I think the technology is inevitable, but I am VERY skeptical about estimates that 10 years from now, it will be all self-driving. I think we’re looking more like 50 years+ for that to fully happen.


  17. We had the same exact discussion over our Xmas dinner! Our thought was that is would be a slow change and “self-driving” features would be added over a long time range. We all welcomed the self-driving revolution in our family. My dad is on the waiting list for one of the new “cheaper” Teslas. (the baby boomers may drive this trend as their eyesight fails….he’s also on the list for cataract surgery…)

    But we still have land-lines. Just in case. (And visiting from Wisconsin, I also did not think the east coast was particularly cold this week. It was above zero, therefore, one can put on a hat and go out.)


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