Self Driving Cars

I am very interested and optimistic about the idea of self-driving cars and an smart infrastructure enabling these vehicles to be cognizant of their environment. I firmly believe that driving, as a necessity[1], is not something humans are optimized for.

The human brain has evolved to tune out repeated and uneventful stimuli. It tunes out the repeated touches from your arm-rest, it tunes out noises and smells that are persistent and have been registered as not hazardous. One astounding example is how the brain tunes out the visual of our nose. While in line-of-sight, you only see you nose when you consciously focus on it. The brain is geared to seek changing, exciting and engaging prompts. Regular driving, especially on the long stretches of interstate highways is neither. So isn’t slogging through traffic everyday, twice. What this all is is a huge waste of time.

On the diagonal end, computers are incredibly adept at doing such repetitive, constant and prolonged things. Add to that the ability to tap into the intelligence of a network of a plethora of sensors and other cars, and you get something that looks like what a conscious and engaged brain would create to free itself from the molasses of a job that is driving. I like driving but I would love it if I could instead read or FaceTime or reply to an email while I am being transported[2].

A common gripe that I have heard is that humans are better decision makers and better suited to handle a 3000lb gasoline-combustion-powered[3] box of metal that is supposed to stay on a 12ft layer of asphalt. No, we aren’t. We fuck-up all the time and catastrophically so. We misjudge. We overlook. We tune out. We get distracted. We get drunk. We get sleepy. A computer doesn’t. Computers do crash, are prone to bugs and susceptible to hacking[4]. However, these errors are constantly fixed. I am sure new bugs might show up with every update to your car’s firmware but one can be certain that a smart car won’t make the same mistake twice. It’ll learn and so will every single car connected to the grid. The system will evolve.

Another key aspect is awareness. We rely on our senses to survey and gauge the road and 10 other vehicles around us, all moving at different speeds. These are senses which have evolved to focus on one prey, hardly ever sprinting at 35 miles an hour. Contrast that with a car that is aware of all the cars around it within a five mile radius, aware of every single decision made by all these cars and able to determine the safest and fastest trajectory with respect to all the lane-changes and stops which are going to happen. Contrast seconds of driver-reaction times with microseconds that it takes a computer to react while taking into account all the historical data for similar situations and everything there is to know about the immediate environment. Contrast a car, that has had its “Check Engine” light on for over a month, being steered by a human who chose to ignore the warnings, malfunctioning on a 70mph highway with a smart car capable of self-diagnosis and driving itself to a repair facility. Those random breakdowns would not happen,[5]. Contrast people-driven cars speeding way beyond the legal speed-limit with a network that is aware of every car that is on the road and the weather and can decide speed-limits on the fly while prioritizing cars taking care of critical situations and emergencies. There is little objectivity is believing that humans are better drivers.

I am well aware that such cognizant and “smart” cars will rely on an infrastructure that is non-existent today, on algorithms which are still being tested in parking lots and on a near 100% saturation. Any rouge human-steered-cars on the highway will trigger defense-mode in all the smart-cars while they attempt to calculate the probabilities of the said car’s actions. Actually, it will never be so binary. For a while there will always be cars which are semi-automatic, or are fully manual coexisting with smart-vehicles. This will only make the algorithms more holistic in their awareness of human behavior on roads. Self-driving will start as an advanced cruise-control while gaining capabilities with time. It will be a long transition. But, it will happen.

  1. Versus, as a sport.  ↩

  2. Public transportation is too restrictive and sparse, especially here in the US. It’s especially a non-starter if you live anywhere outside a metropolitan.  ↩

  3. Except for the damn Tesla owners. I am jealous of you all.  ↩

  4. The Atlantic.  ↩

  5. Things only happen “suddenly” when you’re not paying attention.  ↩