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Will Self-Driving Cars Ever Be Truly So? January 7, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Architectures, Machine Learning, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The quick answer is we will not be in self-driving cars during my lifetime.  Nor your lifetime.  Nor any combination.  Despite pronouncements by so-called pundits, entrepreneurs, reporters, and GM, there is no chance of a self-driving car being so under all conditions, let alone everyone in a self-driving car, with all that that implies.

The fact of the matter is that the Waymo CEO has come out and said that he doesn’t imagine a scenario where self-driving cars will operate under all conditions without occasional human intervention.  Ever.  “Driverless vehicles will always have constraints,” he says.  Most of his competitors now agree.

So what do we have today?  We have some high-profile demonstrations under ideal conditions, some high-profile announcements that say we are all going to be in self-driving cars within a few years.  And one completely preventable death.  That’s about it.  I will guess that we are about 70 percent of the way there, but that last 30 percent is going to be a real slog.

What are the problems?

  1. Mapping.  Today, self-driving cars operate only on routes that have been mapped in detail.  I’ll give you an example.  I was out running in my neighborhood one morning, and was stopped by someone looking for a specific street.  I realized that there was a barricaded fire road from my neighborhood leading to that street.  His GPS showed it as a through street, which was wrong (he preferred to believe his GPS rather than me).  If GPS and mapping cannot get every single street right, self-driving cars won’t work.  Period.
  2. Weather.  Rain or snow interrupts GPS signals.  As does certain terrain.  It’s unlikely that we will ever have reliable GPS, Internet, and sensor data under extreme weather condition.  Which in most of the country happens several months a year.
  3. Internet.  A highway of self-driving cars must necessarily communicate with each other.  This map (paywall) pretty much explains it all.  There are large swaths of America, especially in rural areas, that lack reliable Internet connection.
  4. AI.  Self-driving cars look toward AI to identify objects in the road.  This technology has the most potential to improve over time.  Except in bad weather.  And poorly mapped streets.

So right now we have impressive demonstrations that have no basis in reality.  I won’t discount the progress that has been made.  But we should be under no illusions that self-driving cars are right around the corner.

The good news is that we will likely see specific application in practice in a shorter period of time.  Long-haul trucking is one area that has great potential for the shorter term.  It will involve re-architecting our trucking system to create terminals around the Interstate highway system, but that seems doable, and would be a nice application of this technology.

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Getting to an Era of Self-Driving Cars Will Be Messy November 30, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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In the 1970s, science fiction writer Larry Niven created a near future world where instantaneous matter transport had been invented.  People would use a “phone booth” to dial in their desired destination, and automatically appear at a vacant phone booth nearest that destination.  Cargo used specially designed phone booths to transfer large or hazardous loads.

Of course, the changes in momentum attendant upon changing positions on the planet slowed the Earth’s rotation, as do jet aircraft today, and that momentum had to be dumped somewhere.  Niven used this invention as a way of exploring social phenomena, such as flash crowds (today we call them flash mobs) and ingenious ways of committing crimes.

Michael Crichton used both space and time travel in his novel Timeline (the movie was quite good too).  His technology actually copied the body at the cellular level, destroyed it at the source, then recreated it from the copy at the desired time and place.  Crichton described it by analogy, saying that it was similar to sending a fax.

The problem with this was that replication was, well, slightly less than perfect.  Cells became misaligned, which meant that cell structure was slightly off.  If you used Timeline’s time and space traveling gadget more than about half a dozen times, your body was misaligned enough so that you went crazy and/or died.

Today, we see self-driving cars as a panacea to much that ails society.  Self-driving cars are extremely safe, and they can be coordinated en masse to relieve traffic congestion.  They will obviously be electric, and not spewing combustion gasses into the atmosphere.  What could go wrong?

But none of this is remotely true, at least today and in the foreseeable future.  Although driverless cars claim an enviable safety record for miles driven, all of these miles have been on carefully mapped streets under ideal conditions.  The fact of the matter is that GPS, even with triangulation, does not give these vehicles the needed accuracy to actually travel through traffic.

Coordinated en masse?  Just what does that mean?  Even if we had cars communicating with each other on the highway, it will be 40 years before every car can do so.  And even if they were communicating, can we trust our communications systems enough to coordinate thousands of cars on a highway, feet from each other.  Can’t wait to try that one?

Electric cars.  Yes, the industry is moving in that way.  I just bought my combustion engine car; my last one was still going strong at 19 years.  Will the government force me to buy an electric car in under 20 years?  I don’t think so.

Still, this is the end game, but the end game is a lot farther out than you think.  I’m going to say a hundred years, certainly after all of us have left the mortal plane.  Car companies are saying they will be fully electric in three years.  Um, no.  Electric car advocates are even more deluded.  Car companies are saying all cars will be autonomous by 2025.  Um, no again.  These pronouncements are stupid PR statements, not worth the bytes they take up.

Yet we lap it up.  I really don’t understand that.

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.