kottke.org posts about driverless cars

The trolley problemApr 29 2015

The trolley problem is an ethical and psychological thought experiment. In its most basic formulation, you're the driver of a runaway trolley about to hit and certainly kill five people on the track ahead, but you have the option of switching to a second track at the last minute, killing only a single person. What do you do?

The problem becomes stickier as you consider variations of the problem:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you -- your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

As driverless cars and other autonomous machines are increasingly on our minds, so too is the trolley problem. How will we program our driverless cars to react in situations where there is no choice to avoid harming someone? Would we want the car to run over a small child instead of a group of five adults? How about choosing between a woman pushing a stroller and three elderly men? Do you want your car to kill you (by hitting a tree at 65mph) instead of hitting and killing someone else? No? How many people would it take before you'd want your car to sacrifice you instead? Two? Six? Twenty? Is there a place in the car's system preferences panel to set the number of people? Where do we draw those lines and who gets to decide? Google? Tesla? Uber?1 Congress? Captain Kirk?

If that all seems like a bit too much to ponder, Kyle York shared some lesser-known trolley problem variations at McSweeney's to lighten the mood.

There's an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley's path so it hits a different worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it's in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker wears a T-shirt that says PLEASE HIT ME WITH A TROLLEY, but the shirt is borrowed from the first worker.

Reeeeally makes you think, huh?

  1. If Uber gets to decide, the trolley problem's ethical concerns vanish. The car would simply hit whomever will spend less on Uber rides and deliveries in the future, weighted slightly for passenger rating. Of course, customers with a current subscription to Uber Safeguard would be given preference at different coverage levels of 1, 5, and 20+ ATPs (Alternately Targeted Persons).

On Google's self-driving carNov 26 2013

Burkhard Bilger got inside the secretive Google X lab and reports back on the search giant's effort to build a self-driving car.

The Google car has now driven more than half a million miles without causing an accident-about twice as far as the average American driver goes before crashing. Of course, the computer has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots. Left to its own devices, Thrun says, it could go only about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake. Google calls this the dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption. "The risk is too high," Thrun says. "You would never accept it." The car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. (The first drops call forth a small icon of a cloud onscreen and a voice warning that auto-drive will soon disengage.) It can't tell wet concrete from dry or fresh asphalt from firm. It can't hear a traffic cop's whistle or follow hand signals.

And yet, for each of its failings, the car has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right-of-way. It knows every turn, tree, and streetlight ahead in precise, three-dimensional detail. Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. "I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug," he told me. "Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder." The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark. Within a year, Thrun added, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.

America's legal system will make it difficult for self-driving cars to be accepted here...while not a legal kerfuffle yet, see Tesla's current difficulties w/r/t fire risk in electric cars for a taste of what's to come with self-driving cars. Europe is more likely...someplace like Holland or Denmark. They take their public and personal transportation seriously over there.

Robocars, whistlecars, and robotaxis, oh mySep 28 2012

Brad Templeton imagines how the design of cars and other transportation systems might change with widespread use of driverless cars. I especially like the robocar used as a mobile office or a place to get a good night's sleep as you travel from one place to the other.

The in-car environment will become more of a work and entertainment space than just a travel space. Passengers will expect things like a screen, a keyboard, and a desk. Passengers may wish to face one another (though not all are comfortable riding backwards.)

Quiet will be a very important consideration, though passengers will be allowed to wear headphones if desired, unlike drivers today.

The smooth ride (especially on the highway) of a robocar may generate demand for cars for night-travel, while the passengers sleep. Such vehicles might aim to make a trip last 8 hours rather than make the fastest possible trip, and as such would be much more energy efficient for such trips.

(This also requires a very low crash rate, as seat belts don't work as well on flat beds.)

My guess is that the first big market for driverless cars will not be the US but somewhere smaller, more urban, and more used to experimentation with alternate modes of transportation. (via the atlantic)

Intersections in the age of driverless carsMar 15 2012

Driverless cars is the type of innovation that may have unanticipated consequences. Sure, you can read Twitter while you're being spirited around by your robotic car, but driverless cars may also end private car ownership. And what will intersections look like when used exclusively by driverless cars? Perhaps a little like this:

"There would be an intersection manager," Stone says, "an autonomous agent directing traffic at a much finer-grain scale than just a red light for one direction and a green light for another direction."

Because of this, we won't need traffic lights at all (or stop signs, for that matter). Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver.

I wonder how people will abuse or have fun with driverless cars. Driver- and passenger-less car joyrides? Will they be hackable and if so, dangerous?

Driverless cars will redefine public transportationDec 19 2011

In a short essay about The Unintended Effects of Driverless Cars (like the kind being tested by Google), Koushik Dutta guesses at what they might mean for the future of transportation.

Currently, a car spends 96% of its time idle. Compare that with planes which spend almost their entire lifetime in operation/airborne. Idle planes aren't making money, and they need to recoup their hefty $120M price tag. There is an unforgiving economic incentive to make sure it is always in use.

The proliferation of driverless cars will have a similar effect. Cars will spend less time idle: why would a household buy 2 (or even 3) cars, when they only need 1? Ride to work, then send the car home to your spouse. Need to go grocery shopping, but your kid also needs a ride to a soccer game? No problem, a driverless car can handle that.

Most people don't need cars most of the time but pay for the convenience of having one nearby when they do. Schedule-able on-demand driverless cars could eliminate that need, with the added bonus of expanding effortlessly to fit current capacity (e.g. imagine a family of four needing to go in four different directions at four different times...just schedule four Hertz Driverless pickups from your phone). Of course, people said similarish things about the Segway...

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