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What is the Deal with Self-Driving Cars? June 23, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Google, the media, and other interested parties are portraying self-driving cars as a panacea for drivers, traffic congestion, accidents, and other undesirable driving outcomes. I simply don’t get it, on multiple levels. I like the concept, but can’t connect it to any reasonable reality anytime in the future.

I’ve suspected that there would be issues with self-driving cars since they became a popular meme over the past year. At one level, there is the question of how you would test the technology. In normal system testing, you attempt to run tests that simulate actual use. But there are far too many possible scenarios for self-driving cars to reasonably test. Under other circumstances, it may be possible to test the most likely cases, but on a safety-critical system like a car, that’s simply not possible.

I’m reminded of my skepticism by this article on the utility of aircraft autopilot systems and their role in the operation and in some cases mis-operation of planes. One conclusion seems to be that autopilots actually make flying more complex, rather than simpler. That counterintuitive conclusion is based on the idea that the assumptions made by the autopilot are unexpected by the operators.

As a software guy, I’m okay with the idea that assumptions made by software can take people by surprise on occasion. It’s a difficult problem even for safety-critical systems, where people can die if the software makes an incorrect assumption. You can argue, probably successfully, that pilots shouldn’t be surprised by whatever a plane under their command does.

Drivers, not so much. As we look at aircraft autopilots, it is reasonable to draw a parallel between commercial aircraft and automobiles. Now, granted, aircraft operate in three dimensions. But automobiles have a greater range of operating options, in terms of speed, traffic, road types, road conditions, and so on. Commercial aircraft are already under positive control from the ground.

It’s not clear who will control driverless automobiles. It’s certainly unlikely that drivers are as attentive as pilots, yet will become at least as confused at times as they change where they want to go, and how they want to get there. And they won’t be observing the driving process any near as attentively as (I hope) pilots do.

Sigh. I’m not a Luddite. I’m excited about technology in general, and am an early adopter of many technologies (and, to be honest, a not-so-early adopter of others). But I simply don’t see self-driving automobiles taking off (pun intended) anytime in my lifetime.

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