Linked by Thom Holwerda on Thu 18th Aug 2016 22:21 UTC
In the News

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.

Uber's Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver's seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.

The robotisation of transportation - personal, professional, commercial, and industrial - will be one of the most far-reaching and uprooting developments in recent human history. Transportation is a relatively large part of the workforce, and over the coming decades, many of those jobs will disappear - putting a huge strain on the economy and society.

On top of that, car ownership will start to slow down, and since automated cars will make more efficient use of available road surface, we'll eventually get to the point where we need to rethink our entire infrastructure and the way we design our living space - only 60-70 years after the last time we completely rethought our living space.

We've talked about this before, but The Netherlands completely redesigned (at least the western half of) the country for two things: one, to maximise agricultural production, and two, to prepare the environment for mass car ownership. We succeeded at the former (The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the US, but before Germany - despite our tiny surface area), but we only partially succeeded at the latter (traffic jams are a huge problem all over the country).

As an aside: when I say "redesigned the country", I literally mean that the entire map was redrawn. This map should illustrate really well what the Dutch government, the agricultural sector, and industry agreed upon to do; the 'messy' part is the swampy, irregularly shaped way it used to look, while the straight and clean part is what they turned it into. Gone are the irregularly shaped, inefficient patches of farmland only navigable on foot and in boats, and in their place we got large, patches of land, easily reachable by newly drawn roads to make way for cars and trucks (still countless waterways though; they are crucial for making sure the entire western half of the country doesn't flood).

My parents and grandparents lived through this massive redesign, and according to them, it's very difficult to overstate just how massive the undertaking really was.

It's unlikely said redesign will be undone on a massive, regional scale, but at the local level, I can foresee countless pro-car infrastructure and landscaping changes being undone because it's simply not needed anymore. For instance, many towns in my area - including my own - used to have a waterway (like so) running alongside their Main Street (generally 'Dorpsstraat' in Dutch), but in order for a Main Street to be ready for cars, people had to walk elsewhere; the waterways were often filled up and turned into footpaths or sidewalks, so cars could drive on Main Street.

Over the coming decades, I can definitely see such changes being undone in certain places - especially more tourist-oriented towns such as my own. With fewer and fewer cars on the roads, we can start giving space back to people, and while this may not be a big deal in a spacious country like the United States, it will be a revolution here in The Netherlands, the most densely populated western country (that isn't a city state), and in classic cities like, say, Rome or Amsterdam.

All I'm trying to say is that self-driving car technology will, inevitably, have side-effects that many people simply haven't even considered yet. All of us consider cars a normal aspect of our everyday lives and environment, to the point where we've forgotten just how much space we've conceded to the things. Once the dominance of cars starts to come down like a house of cards, our environment will, quite literally, change.

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Or maybe not
by Treza on Fri 19th Aug 2016 01:32 UTC
Member since:

I'm not believing these stories about how self-driving cars will change everything.
The future will certainly be different from now, but all these theories about future cars and trucks (lorries ?) reminds of the flying cars and atomic trains predicted in the 60's for 40 years later. We're still waiting.

First, having for the 2020's real self-driving vehicles where you can get rid of the driver on public roads and arbitrary destinations is, IMHO, total bullshit. Uber's announcement is pure PR.

For the transformation of roads and car ownership, there is no direct relation with automatic driving. Reducing security distances between vehicles is dangerous even with electronic devices reacting faster than humans, because electronics and software sometimes fails, or something falls across the road, or a tire explodes, or it rains, etc.
Self-driving cars will actually respect speed limitations, security distances, and may actually lower road capacity.
For ownership, many people already don't have cars in large cities, and there are all sorts of vehicle renting for many decades. What is new here ?

European cities have focused a lot since the last 40 years on public transport and are quite hostile to cars (high car park prices, narrow roads giving preference to busses and bicycle lanes...). All cities in the 70's where gray with layers of pipe exhaust smoke.
There is no reason to encourage traffic jams in self-driving cars where you can have subways (many have been automatic for more than 20 years), tramways, busses and electric bicycles.
Giving way to cars is so backwards in Europe, even if it is a self-driving electric metal can.

For many trucks which travel hundreds of kilometers on the highway and fixed paths automation is certainly easier, but having fully automonous, safe vehicles is incredibly expensive and more prone to failures, as shown by aeronautics : Safety critical equipment are redundant, with several independant sensors and actuators, and overprovisioning, and years of fine-tuning.

And maybe Netherlands agricultural changes are also related to having larger farms with fewer peasants from traditionally inherited small fields scattered among many families (In France, this was called "remembrement", and results from the radical changes in agricultural production and mecanisation). The revolution was the tractor, the combined harverster ("moissonneuse-batteuse"), which allowed larger fields, far more than railways, highways and roads across the countryside.

Finally, It is quite crazy that companies as Google which are so much involved in "cloud computing", remote applications, conferencing... are so hostile to letting people work from home. Why should you sleep to work in your self-driving car clogged in traffic jams instead staying at home ? A significant part of the workforce could spend at least half their work time at home.

"Robotisation of transport" : Meh.

Reply Score: 5

RE: Or maybe not
by reez on Fri 19th Aug 2016 19:46 in reply to "Or maybe not"
reez Member since:

but all these theories about future cars and trucks (lorries ?) reminds of the flying cars and atomic trains predicted in the 60's for 40 years later. We're still waiting.

But the main difference here is that the complexity and cost vs the potential gains doesn't play out. I think it has more to do with economy than anything else.

I am not saying there are no gains, but just that the gains compared to costs are not anywhere as near as you not having to pay a truck driver, that for very long roads doesn't need to do very complex work.

For a flying car you probably would need new infrastructure, many systems to avoid bad things to happen, you would need to educate "drivers" way better, you would need someone that knows piloting and driving and everything that combines it.

Or you would maybe need some automation, which is what self driving cars offer.

Might turn out to be wrong, but to me flying cars never really seemed to be a plausible evolution. You'd more likely advance aircrafts and maybe teach them to drive.

And then there is hovering. That would probably make city life more annoying. Know how it is when a car goes through mud next to you and you get in on you? Imagine something like that with every kind of dirt. It's not pleasant to stand next to a helicopter.

I think automation of something that's there is much more sane.

I see flying cars more like jetpacks. They are cool, just like flying cars, but they are pretty impractical for most things and both face problems like stability and energy efficiency.

Reply Parent Score: 4

RE[2]: Or maybe not
by Treza on Fri 19th Aug 2016 23:15 in reply to "RE: Or maybe not"
Treza Member since:

You are right, this is a bad analogy.

I'm also quite biased by my experience in aeronautics where everything safety critical is incredibly complex and expensive to develop. One must prove the behaviour of the equipments for all inputs values and scenarios, with all weird degraded modes where the system must gracefully support losing sensors or actuators. And there is redundancy. And dissemblance between independant critical systems. And even more redundancy to allow flying for some time with some defective equipments. And a crazy amount of documentation... etc...

Of course, the economies of scale of cars can reduce costs in a way that many other industries can only dream of, but there is nothing simple in making a reliable self driving car and it is orders of magnitude more complex than an aircraft autopilot following waypoints and TCAS avoiding collisions. And still there are accidents sometimes, because a Pitot tube freezes, because an old screw worns out...
Maybe it is more doable for cars because when an aircraft crashes there is a lot of media attention, an official investigation and mandatory corrective actions. For cars, anything better than the average human is progress, even if sometimes some drunk software will randomly kill pedestrians.

The "self-driving trucks" future could be also be compared to the situation in Switzerland, where they actively try to minimize the number of trucks crossing the country, using trains, digging railways tunnels (Gothard...).
You can put a truck on a train, keep the chauffeur for the next load or make him sleep in the train, for long distances it can be faster and more efficient, and generate less pollution, and make motorways less dangerous.

There are many ways to change how people and goods are transported. Automatic cars everywhere is just a possible future, among many others.

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE[2]: Or maybe not
by dionicio on Fri 19th Aug 2016 23:36 in reply to "RE: Or maybe not"
dionicio Member since:

Even with HD video, still doesn't believe at Franky Zapata creature. If true, no doubt it will be monopolized by military wing. Being of the shelf tech, just until a credible industry is born around the concept.

Reply Parent Score: 2

RE: Or maybe not
by dionicio on Sun 21st Aug 2016 13:54 in reply to "Or maybe not"
dionicio Member since:

Kind of the same gut feeling -on the near term. Yet they made the announcement, knowing -and maybe pondering- the damage at their own low rank. A rushed attention call to Investors maybe.

Reply Parent Score: 2