Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Barf to the Future

We all love the notion of the “laws of unintended consequences,” since they seem to define everything around us. Mostly, we point to the muddled mess in the Middle East, which one way or another seems linked to past American foreign/military policies missteps that hovered around this oil-producing region over the last few decades. But writing about that today would be just too “Peter Dekom” for the mood I’m in now. So instead let’s address what we all know is coming, what Google is out to prove in a cross-country trial, and what we are all curious about… if a little concerned that someone is trying to take control of our cars away from us. Self-driving cars.
Some of the most complex algorithms, unbelievably-complex mathematical equations, involve traffic patterns, especially during “rush hour.” A car a mile down the road, making a lane change, can create a congesting ripple a mile back. When you combine that one car with the thousands of other cars either reacting, creating parallel moves or acting in some other slight obstructionist manner that has someone else tap the brakes, well those numbers become fodder for supercomputers. Throw in an accident or two, some road repairs, and watch the calculations multiply.
We aren’t keeping up with expanding and repairing our infrastructure remotely fast enough to meet demands, and while we are in a momentary trough in gas prices, we know that sooner or later, that unrenewable resource (which is bad for the environment anyway) is going to soar in price again. Just think of the waste of fuel and infrastructure as cars crawl or sit stopped on highways, waiting for congestion to break, even with their sophisticated navigational traffic monitoring systems (if you can afford one).
So begrudgingly, we are slowly being guided into a future in which cars can communicate with each other (an interactive adaptive cruise control), probably also with a central coordinating system that just might take over the driving function entirely. Indeed, we would expect that “driving takeover” to clear up that congestion by preventing those little disruptions that make driving so hellish in crowded cities and their suburbs. Zooming off at high speeds? Probably not.
“That self-driving car will not speed off when you get in but rather select a route designed to help you be both productive and on time; a path that ensures no wireless drop-outs, avoids adding congestion to fast lanes, and keeps a pace carefully metered to match the end of your call with your arrival at the dentist’s office for your new crown. For roboto-mobiles, accuracy will be more important than speed. Self-driving cars actually represent not just transportation but a bundle of features, and that is why they may become mainstream much more quickly than conventional wisdom expects. This is also why they will go slower…
“Slower means less of the bad stuff, like accidents and fatalities. When you lower your driving speed, your risk of death plummets. On average, belted drivers have a 60% risk of being fatally injured when the change in velocity is 50 mph and a 17% risk when it is 40 mph. With slower speeds—and with the fewer crashes already inherent to autonomous vehicles, thanks to sensors, automatic braking, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication—we actually have a moon shot at engineering death out of driving. Slower means more of the good stuff, like productivity, leisure, and sleep.” FastCompany.com, April 16th. Slow but uniform and steady. Snail-cars?
But there are a few consequences that, as Google and others mount their trials, seem to slide into our forward vision. Can its electronics penetrate bad weather or deal with spots where GPS or electronic contact drops out (in forests or in tunnels)? Who decides on the computer system, and how is it paid for? Is it one uniform system or vehicle dependent? Different systems for state or federal roads? In a world where cars are controlled by computer systems, if there is an accident, who’s responsible? If the accident is caused in part by bad maintenance or miss-designed parts, how would such considerations be factored in (allocated)? Who pays for the insurance? Where does the liability get paid? How do you mix cars with computer controls with older models that don’t have such systems? Separate lanes? But doesn’t this cost a fortune in new infrastructure to have those Automated Vehicle Lanes?
Hey, those are all the obvious issues, but try this on for size: there are lots of folks who get car sick if they aren’t driving! “[T]here may be an unintended consequence to our switch away from human-operated vehicles: a lot of vomiting… According to a report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, 6% to 10% of American adults will get motion sickness—with nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and so on—in fully self-driving cars either most or all of the time. Another 6% to 12% of American adults will get moderate to severe motion sickness in a self-driving vehicle at least some of the time. That’s a fairly high percentage of potentially ill riders.
“If you’ve ever been a passenger in a car driving down a windy road, feeling like you’re going to puke while the driver is perfectly fine, this shouldn’t be too surprising. As the study’s authors, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, explain, motion sickness is usually caused by two factors: a ‘conflict between visual and vestibular inputs’ (like facing the side of the car instead of looking straight ahead) and a lack of ability to anticipate movements or a loss of control of movement. Since drivers have more control over where the vehicle is moving, they get motion sick less often than passengers…
“This quandary—swapping safety concerns for sickness—can’t be entirely solved, because anyone who isn’t driving a car is by definition lacking control over the vehicle, and that’s one of the primary causes of dizziness and nausea. But the study authors suggest some fixes.
“A heads-up transparent display could ensure that visual and sensory inputs aren’t in conflict, as could non-swiveling seats that restrict head motion. Fully reclining seats could also be useful, since they let people sleep, reducing the chance of nausea. Another nausea-reducing method cited by the authors could mimic vehicle motion and force with stimuli imposed around the passenger video screen.” FastCompany.com, April 15th. Tell me it just ain’t so, Chuck! Maybe, I’ll just read a book or watch a movie while the car drives itself. What? That could make me sicker?! Oh no! But maybe they’ll allow texting while puking!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I can still hear the words of SNL’s Roseanne Roseannadanna (the late Gilda Radner) echoing in my mind: “Well it just goes to show you, it's always something, you either got a toenail in your hamburger or toilet paper clinging to your shoe."

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