Monday, September 12, 2016

A Couple of Decades from Now?!

That’s the rough prognosis that most so-called automotive experts tell us it will take for a transition to driverless cars… oh, and driverless trucks. There are a couple of things wrong with this prediction. First, we are underestimating the driving economic and technological forces behind pushing the change. From Tesla to Apple, from Google to the largest automakers on earth (and a few more you’ve probably never heard of), there are armies of top-flight engineers working on the dynamics needed to make the system work…  Oh, and more than a few lawyers! And there are transport companies, from Uber to major trucking lines, savoring the cost-savings from driverless commercial cars and trucks.
Think about how many cabs and Uber-rides in big cities are manned (literally) by recent immigrants (hellooooo, New Yawk!) and folks who wouldn’t be able to make a living otherwise. And then there are those long-haul truckers who make a real living from their driving skills. It’s bad for those of us who actually like to drive, who actually consider performance when they buy a car. The thought of that joy “going away” hasn’t crossed the minds of most of those aficionados. But for those who make a living behind the wheel, it’s a much darker prospect.
We hear heart-rending stories about the benefits of such automated driving. Like the Tesla owner, suffering a heart attack, kicked his auto-drive to take him on a life-saving trip to the hospital. Oh, we hear about the autopilot cars involved in fatal crashes as well, but the statistics are not nearly as scary as those from cars with human drivers. But the fact remains, there are some very big interests with some very big bank accounts totally dedicated to a world of driverless cars. Aside from the reduction of labor costs, the efficiencies of fuel consumption maximization and the better utilization of a decaying and underbuilt highway system seem almost necessary with a Congress that appears to be infrastructure averse.
What makes this transition even more interesting has to include those cities where driverless car “experiments” – potentially on a mass scale – might just provide the proving ground for a global driverless future. We see the notion of reducing the use of cars in major cities in the Netherlands and all over Scandinavia. Oh, and then there is this little thang goin’ on in the city-state of Singapore, where owning and driving a car is beyond outrageously expensive. From the huge duties on the cars themselves to the massive daily cost of even being able to drive a car into the center of town.
The August 25th talks about one engineering firm with a very big opportunity to change the world: “Now, here in Singapore, you can in fact hop into a driverless taxi and go for a ride. And it's even free… But hold your horses, it's still only a trial. It does, though, take things a wee bit further than what we've seen from the big car makersGoogle or ride-hailing giant Uber.
A truly driverless ride? … Well, sort of. Given that it is a trial, there's of course still a driver in the front… But the cars are doing the driving themselves, and the driver is only there to monitor the performance and as a backup in case something goes wrong.
“It is not any of the big names of the car industry who we know are all pushing the technology in their research and development departments… It's a company called nuTonomy, a US-based start-up developer of software for self-driving cars. The company was founded in 2013 by two MIT researchers specializing in robotics and driverless technology. The firm has offices both in the US and in Singapore.
“Earlier this year, nuTonomy was the first company to get permission from the Singapore government to test self-driving cars in a small area of the town. It's now begun tests with passengers… Given that nuTonomy is not a car manufacturer, these are not flashy futuristic vehicles designed for a driverless future. Rather, they are small Renault and Mitsubishi electric vehicles that have been equipped with the company's software and cameras.
“The micro cars are still, however, a step up from some of nuTonomy's previous trials with driverless vehicles in 2014 - back then, the flashy ride was in fact an electric golf cart… The new taxi trial currently consists of a fleet of six cars - each of them has a complex system of lasers that operate like a radar to monitor the car's surrounding. In addition there are cameras that work with the software.
“Free rides across Singapore?... Not exactly. It's a very, very small part of town and far, far away from the centre. The taxis will run in a limited 2.6 sq mile (4 sq km) area in the west of the city-state. Also, there are designated pick-up and drop-off spots so you can't get on or off wherever you fancy.
“And it's not for everyone yet. You have to register after receiving an invitation from nuTonomy and so far, only a few dozen people are part of the programme. The firm says that it plans to expand the service to thousands of people within a few months.
“Why Singapore?... The city is already a bit of a taxi heaven. Owning your own car is mind-bogglingly expensive and many people take taxis on a regular basis. Cab rides are cheap and there's a very high demand.
“Also, the city's overall traffic situation is rather disciplined and organised. More often than not when Singaporeans talks about a traffic jam, all they mean are a few cars more than usual at a traffic light… So the goal is not just to complete a little trial but to expand it to a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018 - that's according to nuTonomy.” Today, Singapore… tomorrow the world? It seems that the biggest focus is on cars where we (used to?) pay someone to drive. And once those folks are replaced… then the rest of us will slowly be introduced to our next generation of cars… and the leisure time we will pick up while riding in them. Hear that, entertainment industry?
“NuTonomy appears to be amongst the top of the pack, but is by no means way ahead of the other players… Uber is planning a very similar project to be launched in Pittsburgh in the US in a few weeks time.
“And just about every car company is working on driverless technology from Silicon Valley's Tesla to Ford, Volvo, BMW and a number of Chinese car makers... Internet giant Google was in fact amongst the first to pioneer and extensively test its driverless Google car and has teamed up with a number of car makers for their research.”
A couple decades? With lots of fierce resistance from those who make their livings from driving – teamsters and others – vs the Silicon Valley and more than a few mega-billion-dollar tech industries? It might not be pretty. And so I remember this little story about when cars were first introduced over a century ago. The backfiring engines gave local lawmakers the excuse to ban these new-fangled vehicles from city streets so they wouldn’t scare the horses. Not a good bet to challenge progress, I guess. Don’t see a lot of horses in big cities anymore.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the “little amusing stories” that creep onto the back pages of our periodicals often make the biggest changes in the way we live.

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