Google’s Car vs A Boston Winter

During the legendary Boston winter of 2015, I pulled out of a downtown parking garage one evening and nearly rear-ended a dumpster. It was sitting in the middle of a usually busy three-lane road, a place where no dumpster should ever be. It was dark and there were no cones, no markers, no construction signs…nothing.

This scenario is why (I feel) 100% autonomous, “no-steering-wheel”, driverless cars are much further off than experts predict. I highly doubt my dumpster case is in any machine learning training set, and it will be a long time before it ever is. My human brain was able to put it all together: the front loader down the street loading another dumpster, snow piles all around, the city’s urgency to remove snow, etc. Until machines approach human cognition, there are a LOT of real world cases that are more than just turning the wheel and tapping the brakes — too many cases to “remove the steering wheel” anytime soon.

If we look closely at any new technology, the rollout is almost always very incremental. Historians love to write about revolutions, but the reality is always much more evolutionary. Consider the autonomous car evolution so far:

  • Cars that beep when you divert from your lane & when you need to brake
  • A steering wheel nudges you in the right direction when you divert from your lane (with self-braking)
  • Complete steering and braking to maintain your lane & following distance
  • All of the above, plus safe lane changing with a turn signal input
  • ..etc..

I feel that last phase (“cruise-control that steers”) will be with us for a while. Even though it’s not “send your 5yr old to their play date in the car” kind of autonomy, it’s still hugely valuable. Long trips and commutes will be much less tiring. Also, speed kills — computers will soon be the safest drivers on highways & major roads, in all conditions. There will be injuries and deaths under computer control, but many more injuries and deaths will be averted.

While Tesla gets a lot of press, long-haul trucking may be the first significant disruption. Truck drivers are under strict regulations regarding drive time vs rest time, and for most drivers, their truck isn’t moving (or earning!) when they’re resting or sleeping. With self-driving technology, each driver gets a “highway co-driver”.  After lunch, navigate to the freeway, engage cruise control, and take a nap.

As things advance, I hope the government will be a constructive part of the process. For example, some highway segments may be flagged as “OK for self-driving” (as is done today for tandem trailers), and the regulators could acknowledge that “self-drive” time is not “drive time” for safety quotas.

This is exciting stuff, but “piling into your car after a few too many for a safe ride home”?? That still may be a way off!