I got a good laugh from a recent story in the New York Times (September 2) about the tribulations of Google’s experimental self-driving cars.
It seems that the automated automobiles are too smart for their own good.
Self-driving cars are miracles of modern technology, able to navigate the highways and byways of our complicated country far more safely than mistake-prone human drivers. They can anticipate and correct for congestion, slow down for pedestrians and bicyclists, and react quickly to unexpected events, such as a child darting out into the street after a basketball.
But they are also programmed to obey the traffic laws. This turns out to be a problem, because most drivers don’t.
In a recent test, a Google car slowed down for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, just as it was supposed to do. It was immediately rear-ended by a human driver.
In fact, the story (by Matt Richtel and Conor Dougherty) reports, Google cars have been in 16 crashes since 2009. Most were minor, but in every single case, a human being in another car was at fault.
In another test, a Google car was paralyzed at a four-way stop because human drivers at the other three corners kept inching forward, probing for an advantage, while the automated car waited for them to come to a full stop. They never did.
I find this all pretty amusing, and also somewhat vindicating, given some of the comments on my last two posts about bicycles. When drivers rail at bicyclists for committing minor traffic violations, they would do well to look at themselves in the rear-view mirror. Few of them obey the letter the law. Dmitri Dolgov, head of software for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, was quoted in the Times article as saying that human drivers need to be “less idiotic.”
But there’s a larger issue to address here. The whole point of self-driving car technology is to make our roads safer, to reduce the car carnage that still claims upwards of 30,000 lives per year in the United States alone. We are a long way from a fully-automated traffic system, or even a partially automated one, in which people could drive themselves into a city and then turn over their car to some sort of central control. And how would we prevent hacking and other electronic mischief? In the short term, the challenge of integrating automated, law-abiding vehicles with the comparative anarchy of human-driven traffic remains.
I have to wonder if some of these research dollars might be better spent on proven technology that would make our roads safer by reducing the number of vehicles using them. Cities and suburbs could invest in state-of-the-art public transportation systems, build bicycle infrastructure, and promote pedestrian-friendly business districts. The widespread long-distance trucking network that moves most of our goods over the Interstates could be scaled back in favor of inter-modal transport, which uses rail for long distances and trucks locally.
To me, it makes more sense to work toward reducing traffic than to work toward automating it. Every trip not made in a car or truck takes a motorized vehicle off the roads and makes them less congested and safer for everyone.
Here in Bangor, that means longer bus hours, more bike lanes, and more tolerance by drivers for bicycles and pedestrians. It could also mean consolidation of the three bus services – Greyhound, Concord Coach, and the Community Connector – into a central downtown hub. These modest measures may seem prosaic, but they are also practical, and can be achieved quickly, at far less cost than outfitting us all with automated vehicles.
Like many kids of my generation, I grew up watching the Jetsons, and imagined that I might someday live in a world of flying cars and buildings in the sky connected by conveyor belts. I’m not against technology. I’m typing this on a computer that slips easily into a satchel I can carry on the bus. I’d love to be able to beam from place to place like the characters in Star Trek.
But sometimes less is more. Automating the automobile will do nothing to alleviate the isolation and expense of our car-driven world. It will not revitalize town centers. It will not relieve the pressure on our overstressed natural environment. It will not foster a sense of community or physical fitness.
Until people become as smart as their cars, I’ll keep seeking out saner and safer alternatives.