Last week, a friend and I got a sneak peek at Google's new self-driving cars. In addition to spending an afternoon cheating on my Intergalactic SpaceBoat of Light and Wonder, I got to chat with the engineers about the project.
1. Human beings are terrible drivers.
We drink. We doze. We text. In the US, 30,000 people die from automobile accidents every year.(Source) Traffic crashes are the primary cause of death worldwide for people aged 15-24, (Source) and during a crash, 40% of drivers never even hit the brakes. (Source) We’re flawed organisms, barreling around at high speeds in vessels covered in glass, metal, distraction, and death. This is one of Google’s "moonshots" -- to remove human error from a job which, for the past hundred years, has been entirely human.
2. Google self-driving cars are timid.
The car we rode in did not strike me as dangerous. It struck me as cautious.
It drove slowly and deliberately, and I got the impression that it’s more likely to annoy other drivers than to harm them.
Google can adjust the level of aggression in the software, and the self-driving prototypes currently tooling around Mountain View are throttled to act like nervous student drivers.
In the early versions they tested on closed courses, the vehicles were programmed to be highly aggressive. Apparently during these aggression tests, which involved obstacle courses full of traffic cones and inflatable crash-test objects, there were a lot of screeching brakes and roaring engines and terrified interns. Although impractical on the open road, part of me wishes I could have experienced that version as well.
3. They're cute.
Google's new fleet was intentionally designed to look adorable. Our brains are hardwired to treat inanimate (or animate) objects
with greater care, caution, and reverence when they resemble a living thing. Psychological studies have been done whereby participants, when asked to harm an inanimate object,
were less likely to hurt the object if it had a face. Participants in the study would happily bludgeon a potato with a hammer, unless you stuck some hair and a pair of eyeballs to the potato,
at which point their moral compasses would obediently snap into place.
By turning self-driving cars into an adorable Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots, Google hopes to spiritually disarm other drivers. I also suspect the cuteness is used to quell some of the road rage that might emerge from being stuck behind one of these things. They're intended as moderate-distance couriers, not open-road warriors, so their max speed is 25 miles per hour.
4. It’s not done and it’s not perfect.
Some of the scenarios autonomous vehicles have the most trouble with are the scenarios human beings have the most trouble with,
such as traversing four-way stops or handling a yellow light (do you brake suddenly, or floor it and run the light?). At one point during the trip, we were attempting to make a right turn onto a busy road. Everyone’s attention was directed to the left, waiting for an opening.
When the road cleared and it was safe to turn right, the car didn’t budge. I thought this was a bug at first, but when I looked to my right there was a pedestrian standing very close to the curb, giving the awkward body language that he was planning on jaywalking. This was a very human interaction: the car was waiting for a further visual cue from the pedestrian to either stop or go, and the pedestrian waiting for a cue from the car.
When the pedestrian didn’t move, the self-driving car gracefully took the lead, merged,
and entered the roadway.
The cars use a mixture of 3D laser-mapping, GPS, and radar to analyze and interpret their surroundings, and the latest versions are fully electric with a range of about 100 miles. The radar is interesting because it allows the car to see through objects, rather than relying on line-of-sight. At one point during our drive the car recognized and halted for a cyclist who was concealed behind a row of hedges.
Despite the advantages over a human being in certain scenarios, however, these cars still aren't ready for the real world. They can't drive in the snow or heavy rain, and there's a variety of complex situations they do not process well, such as passing through a construction zone. Google is hoping with enough logged miles and data, eventually the cars will be able to handle all of this as well (or better) than a human could.
5. I want this technology to succeed, like … yesterday.
I'm biased. Earlier this year my mom had a stroke. It damaged the visual cortex of her brain, and her vision was impaired to the point that she'll probably never drive again.
This reduced her from a fully-functional, independent human being with a career and a buzzing social life into someone who is homebound, disabled, and powerless.
When discussing self-driving cars, people tend to ask a lot of superficial questions: how much will these cars cost? Is this supposed to replace my car at home? Is this supposed to replace taxis or Uber? What if I need to use a drive-thru?
They ignore the smarter questions. They ignore the fact that 45% of disabled people in the US still work. (Source: page 20) They ignore the fact that 95% of a car's lifetime is spent parked.(Source) They ignore how this technology could transform the lives of the elderly, or eradicate the need for parking lots or garages or gas stations. They dismiss the entire concept because they don't think a computer could ever be as good at merging on the freeway as they are.
They ignore the great, big, beautiful picture staring them right in the face: that this technology could make our lives so much better.
6. It wasn’t an exhilarating ride, and that's a good thing.
Riding in a self-driving car is not the white-knuckled, cybernetic thrill ride one might expect. The car drives like a person, and after a few minutes you forget that you’re being driven autonomously. You forget that a robot is differentiating cars from pedestrians from mopeds from raccoons. You forget that millions of photons are being fired from a laser and interpreting, processing, and reacting to the hand signals of a cyclist. You forget that instead of an organic brain, which has had millions of years to evolve the cognitive ability to fumble its way through a four-way stop, you’re being piloted by an artificial one, which was birthed in less than a decade.
The unfortunate part of something this transformative is the inevitable, ardent stupidity which is going to erupt from the general public.
Even if in a few years self-driving cars are proven to be ten times safer than human-operated cars, all it’s going to take is one tragic accident and the public is going to lose their minds.
There will be outrage. There will be politicizing. There will be hashtags.
It’s going to suck.
But I say to hell with the public. Let them spend their waking lives putt-putting around on a crowded interstate with all the other half-lucid orangutans on their cell phones.
I say look at the bigger picture. All the self-driving cars currently on the road learn from one another, and each car now collectively possesses 40 years of driving experience. And this technology is still in its infancy.
I say ignore the anecdotes, embrace the data.
I’m ready for our army of Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots.
I'm ready for the future. I'm ready for the marshmallows.