From Horse Power to Horsepower to Processing Power

(Photo: Ewen Roberts)

Some thinkers make their reputations by focusing on social justice, economic progress, or global sustainability. I took the low road and went for horse manure. It was my article on filth, flies, and putrefying horse carcasses in the 19th century city that brought me to the attention of Dubner and Levitt and, for better or worse, to this site. FYI, the article is here.

If you do peruse it, you’ll see I ended with the hope that technology will bail us out of our transportation problems just like it bailed us out of those caused by the horse. At that time, a deus ex machina descended from the heavens to improbably solve the insoluble. The savior was known as the automobile, and as it went from obscurity to ubiquity in a few decades it banished the working horse—a primary mode of transportation for thousands of years—to oblivion.

There was only one problem with my call for a miraculous technological fix: I did not have the slightest idea what that technology would be.

That was in 2006. Now, only six years later, the miracle innovation is arriving. It is not only feasible with today’s technology but is already being introduced commercially, right under our noses. There is little doubt it will be the biggest innovation in transportation since internal combustion itself. It is cars that drive themselves.

What are the potential benefits of driverless cars?

First, they promise to do wonders for traffic congestion. The reason is that human beings were not designed for the task of piloting vehicles at 70 mph; Mother Nature never conceived of us going faster than maybe 20, even when chasing the juiciest of gazelles. Our perception is poor and our reaction times slow. For this reason, we have to leave a large cushion between ourselves and the car in front of us, and we respond sluggishly when it’s time to brake or accelerate. With cars driven by microprocessor instead of synapse, superior perception and reaction times mean vehicles could be spaced much more closely together and could better coordinate their movements, for example at intersections.

I hesitate to call this a “cure” for traffic congestion, since that word has been invoked unsuccessfully before, for example when the freeway, and, for that matter, the car itself were introduced. But robocars will go a long way toward fixing our traffic problem.

Moreover, even when you do get caught in traffic, driverless cars will ameliorate your lot. Many urgent pursuits like looking up song lyrics or mastering Angry Birds could replace time otherwise wasted staring at the road. Who knows, the design of the car interior itself might turn into something resembling a little office or sitting room. Just being freed from having to stare out the window and read the annoying attempts at humor affixed to the bumper in front of you will make driverless cars worthwhile.

Driverless cars will do much to address inequity in mobility. Taxi fares will probably drop sharply when there is no longer a driver to be paid, bringing the convenience of auto travel to more low-income people. And transit service will benefit as the cost of provision falls when bus drivers are phased out.

The pressing (and growing) problem of travel by the elderly who have lost the ability to drive would largely be solved by robotic chauffeurs; this might enable people to live independently longer. At the other end of the age spectrum, once the technology is perfected we could probably send older children to school or the mall solo, saving considerable parental time and aggravation.

Driverless cars will save many lives. By maneuvering with robotic precision, they have the potential to vastly reduce the number of accidents, 90 percent of which are due to human error. This will save us fantastic amounts of grief and expense. Tens of thousands of deaths and millions of hospital visits may be avoided each year.

Bars, clubs, and beer companies have cause to rejoice; with a built-in designated driver you will never again have to worry about having one too many. Moreover, driverless cars will be programmed to obey the traffic laws, leaving the police to concentrate on more important business and sparing you from having to think up silly excuses that probably won’t get you out of the ticket anyway.

Along with mass unemployment for traffic cops, what will happen to the monetary and temporal costs of goods movement (and therefore goods) when we no longer have to pay truck drivers or leave trucks idle while drivers eat and sleep?

(Photo: Mark Doliner)

But will driverless cars ever arrive? In fact, they already have. You may have read that Google has sent driverless cars more than 300,000 miles in California, much of it on real roads surrounded by oblivious fellow motorists, without a single accident. (A few kinks remain to be worked out, though: Google is still having trouble with driving in snow and through construction sites.)

And lest you think there is a big gulf between technological feasibility and actual commercial introduction, driverless cars are already arriving through evolution, not revolution. We have had cruise control for decades and now we have adaptive cruise control which slows the vehicle and even jams on the brakes when collisions are impending. Also, carmakers are offering systems that alert the driver when he drifts out of his lane. Is it a great stretch to think that soon enough the car will get sick of beeping at you and just take the wheel itself? There are already cars which parallel park themselves; how long will it be before they just drop you off at the door and rid you of the miserable task of circling the block looking for a space?

As far as market acceptance, drivers are proving willing to pay for these innovations, particularly because they enhance safety. Anyway, the new sensing hardware and control software for fully autonomous vehicles may not be prohibitive. (Erik Coelingh, a senior engineer at Volvo, estimates about $3,000 per vehicle.)

Will government accommodate this development? Fortunately, the way technology is evolving it will take surprisingly little public expenditure. While it was once thought that roads would have to be equipped with fancy technology to enable driverless cars, it is now becoming clear that all the necessary equipment—cameras, radar, lidar (a sort of radar that uses light), etc.—can be onboard, with no new infrastructure necessary.

I have heard skeptics complain about legal and regulatory hurdles. Perhaps at first there will be. But it is unlikely that, given time to prove itself, a technology that drastically reduces the number of accidents will be held back because of trouble assigning responsibility for those crashes that do occur. In fact, the day will come when it is driving, not driverlessness, that the state will try to legislate away. Anyway, the regulatory road has already begun to be paved; Nevada is now issuing driverless car licenses.

Lest I get carried away, it’s important to remember a caveat from the horse manure story. While the auto did eliminate the problem of horse pollution, as we now know it sowed the seeds for vexing new environmental problems of which proponents at the time were blissfully ignorant. How might driverless cars make us be careful what we wished for?

In one way, driverless cars promise to cut fuel consumption and emissions, by coordinating car movements in a way that smooths traffic flow and improves aerodynamics through the “platooning” of the vehicles. However, by making car travel so much cheaper, faster and easier, driverless cars may harm the environment by promoting lots more driving. It is true that other technology is currently addressing this problem, with electrification (e.g., the Volt) and many other efficiency improvements like improved transmissions, materials, tires, and aerodynamics. Still, emissions and fuel use will remain a vexing problem that driverless cars could conceivably exacerbate.

By making driving easier and more pleasant, and by cutting congestion and thus reducing travel times, driverless cars promise to increase suburbanization and “sprawl” as people choose to live farther from the central city and their places of work. But whether this is a problem is in the eye of the beholder, and is a topic for another day. And it is possible that driverless cars might also foster density, if people are willing to switch to car sharing and we need fewer parking places.

Nobody has mentioned this yet, but the number of organ donors will plummet when the supply of auto accident victims dries up, though I’m sure all of us would accept that trade-off.

On the lighter side, Hollywood will have to come up with a substitute for interminable car chases, and a microprocessor will be less fun to hate than Jeff Gordon. Still, on balance, getting humans out from behind the wheel will be well worth it.

Obviously, there is going to be pushback against this technology, because for many the idea of computers ruling the world is kind of scary. Driverless cars will ultimately result in tremendous safety improvements, but no doubt accidents involving computer control are going to get major publicity because the technology is new and exotic, while old-fashioned deaths due to human error are too humdrum to make the news. We are going to have to overcome fears that our robocars will cut our life support systems while we are in suspended animation or flush us out of the airlock like the HAL 9000. Indeed, when the car itself was introduced, safety issues led to widespread public protest, including mass demonstrations and riots. It is unclear how many decades it will take for robocars to be accepted and reach their full potential.

But one key factor works in robocars’ favor. Unlike many other methods for ameliorating the problems caused by automobility, technological improvements in the auto have a proven track record of adoption and success. Crash fatality rates have plunged and fuel economy has surged over time thanks to technology. The reason for this success is that technology can fix problems without asking Americans to sacrifice the mobility to which they have been accustomed, and in the case of driverless cars will even increase mobility, as the auto itself did.

Surprisingly few people, even within the transportation planning world, are talking about this pending revolution. The Economist has been writing about it (see this, and this which goes into the technology issues I don’t have space to cover here), but as usual few people are as smart as they are.

But though modern thinkers might be neglecting this issue at the moment, I’ll bet some lucky future historian is going to get as much mileage chronicling the almost-forgotten foibles of inept human drivers as I got from horse droppings.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

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    • Roger prime says:

      So take this thought one step further: it’s not robocars, but the need to engage in excess transportation that robots and, more specifically, microprocessors are removing. With more compute power, fewer and fewer excursions for fewer and fewer people are necessary. I can easily envision a future where most physical transportation is used for physical goods, people use automated transportation only when necessary, the “workplace” as we know it is utterly gone, and even grocery shopping is mostly online. You’ll only “go for a drive” for fun, in places designated specifically for that purpose (the Garden State Parkway re-envisioned), and otherwise transportation will be virtually free, widely accessible and mostly unnecessary.

      People of the future will both laugh and cry at all our current wasted motion, the primary curse warming the planet.

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  2. SB says:

    Here’s one potential “bad” scenario: loss of individual freedom. Who gets to decide where the car will go? Ubiquitous wireless technology + self driving cars means that, not only are all of your movements easily trackable, but potentially controllable.

    Want to go out for yet another booze-fueled bender tonight? Not so fast, champ, your nanny-bot (perhaps a new govt regulation?) says you’ve had enough.

    Want to head downtown to participate in the protests against the latest govt over-reach? Not so fast, citizen, that area has been restricted from travel.

    What will become of all the unemployed truck and cab drivers? Sure to be a painful transition.

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    • pawnman says:

      The same thing that happened to the guys who used to light the street lamps and kill whales for their oil, I imagine. No one wrings their hands over the plight of the carriage driver or milkman. they’ll transition to something, I’m sure.

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    • JAM says:

      “Want to go out for yet another booze-fueled bender tonight? Not so fast, champ, your nanny-bot (perhaps a new govt regulation?) says you’ve had enough.”

      To a degree we have seen this already. Cars with wheel speed sensors employed by ABS brake systems have computers on them that can detect wheels spinning at different speeds. The car can effectively cut the air intake and reduce the engine speed when this condition is detected. Great for traction control, but bad if you want to “burn rubber”.

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    • Mike B says:

      When systems are automated they are vulnerable to being captured by policy. Today’s speed limits are completely laughable, designed in the 1950′s for cars with no ability to stop or handle and turned to the lowest common denominator driving skill. Today they are largely ignored and if actually obeyed would create massive traffic jams.

      Driverless cars of course would need to obey every traffic law least the manufacturer be liable in any number of ways. In theory such cars should be allowed to go faster due to their safer method of operation, but for any number of other reasons including institutional inertia and thinking of the children you know that they won’t. Moreover, just to make sure that automated vehicles never accidentally exceed the speed limit they will be turned to max out at about 5-10% lower…just to be safe, even though today’s speed limits have a safety factor built in.

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      • econobiker says:

        +1 for the “thinking of the children” reference

        Funny that this is only a reason when death or dismemberment could arise.

        It is never used for as a reason to stop a bank from foreclosing on homes using fraudulently signed documents or similar, more costly dollar for dollar, administrative crimes or ethically questionable activities like a big bank illegally laundering drug money or allowing terrorist country money to flow through it…

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      • Goatherd says:

        Speed limits may be too slow on highways, but they are far too fast in cities. Increasing the speed limits in cities would not improve traffic flow, which is almost always a result of congestion. It would just mean that drivers could speed from one red light to another.

        Meanwhile, pedestrians are being killed and injured at shocking rates. 4000 deaths, 60,000 injuries per year in the USA. Driverless cars would reduce this and reduce congestion. Raising speed limits in cities would make both worse.

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      • James says:

        “Today’s speed limits are completely laughable, designed in the 1950?s for cars with no ability to stop or handle and turned to the lowest common denominator driving skill.”

        Ah, yes. This is why, back in the bad old days when I worked in an ‘urb, I wasted many an hour driving from San Jose to Tracy (I680-580-205, with IIRC 65 mph limits posted) at an average speed of about 20 mph – and that was despite trying to schedule travel for lower-traffic periods.

        Speed limits aren’t the problem here.

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    • Tytalus says:

      Agreed. The opportunity for social control is pretty incredible.

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  3. Tom Kelly says:

    Driverless cars should end urban sprawl. Two reasons: Parking is no longer required as the cars will drive themselves to a storage and maintenance facility when not in use; and driverless cars will let you live in a dense urban area while sending the kids off to school to the best available schools, not necessarily in the neighborhood, they can do homework enroute while you monitor/help on video.

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    • equired says:

      Sure, they’ve got to end the parking “problem”, but I thought people lived in the suburbs because they liked the big yards.

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  4. Travis T. says:

    Where will cities make up the lost revenue from traffic violations?

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    • m.m says:

      I predict new and exciting fees for annually registering driverless cars, as well as exorbitant (and easily tracked, thanks to millions of GPS-enabled, networked cars) congestion pricing.

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      • OAO says:

        It’s good that the drivers pays for the road at the maginal cost. Nowadays it’s free, so everyone is paying for those who have a car. There is many costs, including engineering, land, parking. It will result in a more efficient city, with less cars and more pedestrians and public transportation.

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  5. sb says:

    Also: consider the labor uprising(s). The Teamsters will not sit idly by while their livelihood is replaced by robots.

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    • pawnman says:

      Someone still has to load and unload the trucks, right?

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      • JAM says:

        If you can replace a driver, it should be child’s play to replace a loader, assuming you don’t have exotic shape packages.

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    • Mike B says:

      Labor has no power to stop this. However the massive unemployment that will result from driverless vehicles will need to be addressed somehow. Realistically there will be some need for human attendants in trucks and buses in case of breakdown or maneuvering in tight places where the automated systems can’t functional well. However the reduced skill needed by said drivers will dramatically reduce their compensation.

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  6. Dave says:

    The insurance lobby is very powerful as well. They will not take kindly to reduced revenues. I see a lot of propaganda in our future.

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    • punmaster says:

      The insurance lobby will be behind this – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see driverless cars brought into the mainstream simply by the massively lower rates for owners of driverless cars. They’ve already started offering lower fees for those that use GPS trackers, after all. It’ll be an interesting tradeoff – lower revenue from reduced rates vs lower payouts due to reduced accidents.

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    • JAM says:

      They lobby that should probably be against this is attorneys. With the reduced accidents, and all of the recorded data that will be on hand in the event, it seems that attorneys will be left with little to argue about.

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      • Clancy says:

        A reduced number of accidents, yes, but there will still be some. And the accidents that do happen can be blamed on the auto manufacturers who have a lot more cash than your average drunk driver. It would be a boon for large, well-positioned firms doing class-action at the expense of the smaller personal injury guys.

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  7. Eric C says:

    Another potential benefit of driverless cars is increased fuel efficiency, precipitated by the elimination of arms races for ever faster, ever larger, and ever heavier cars. Cars without drivers could be very light and small, partly because they won’t be crashing into each other, partly because no one will feel the need to see over everyone else, and partly because no one will feel the need to out-accelerate everyone else.

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    • Eliot M says:

      Don’t forget the uncontrollable desire for people to acquire new things, which will lead to the need to transport those new things. Small, self-driving cars won’t all be tiny. Somebody will still need to transport my couch and mattress in the future.

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