Self-Driving Cars? Only When I Can Rely on My Laptop and Smartphone

By | March 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

Autonomous braking (not)

Without fear of contradiction, based on these news reports we can state that self-driving cars have yet to be perfected:

Self-driving car in bus crash.

Self-driving car fails to detect large truck in fatal crash.

Self-parking car hits two pedestrians.

Self-driving car drives into people.

Self-driving car rear-ends large truck.

Lane-keeping assist cannot follow even slight curve.

Tesla driver stranded in desert after smartphone app failure.

Keyless ignitions left on inadvertently, cause monoxide deaths.

Tesla ‘autopilot’ car hits police motorcycle.

Robot cars can be blinded from seeing pedestrians.

Sometimes it works.

Truly autonomous cars would require that all vehicles be autonomous and able to communicate with one another on a network. This may happen in the future. For now, all we have are semi-autonomous cars, which require a driver to take over in emergencies. But that’s a problem.

Recall the crash of Air France 447 in 2007. The Airbus A330 was partially automated, and the two copilots were trained in how to fly such a plane, but not well trained in how to fly a non-automated aircraft. The senior pilot knew how, but he was resting. When the stall warning went off, the copilots pulled the nose up, not down. By the time the senior pilot took over, the plane was in an unrecoverable stall and crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 228 people aboard.

Lesson learned: Semi-autonomous vehicles make easy things easier, but difficult things more difficult. What is worse, they tend to be used by people who are poorly trained and inexperienced in handling emergencies.

Self-driving cars are being introduced by tech companies, often with government encouragement. Car magazines, usually the province of driving enthusiasts, are uncharacteristically positive in their opinions. Why?

In part this may be the modern fascination with electronic gizmos of all types. In part this may be the current obsession with “change” ‒ whether or not it is for the better. And in part it may the increasing passivity of young people. Rather than running around the house playing rowdy games, kids now tend to sit on the couch playing video games on smart phones, or ‒ if they are lucky ‒ on flat-screen TVs.

Question: Can passive people like that be citizens of a constitutional republic, rather than subjects of an over-controlling government bureaucracy? Stay tuned.

The best way to predict how well new technology will work is to see how well current technology works. Some time ago, my laptop no longer recognized a mouse. After consulting experts, I was forced to reinstall Windows. I backed up my files first, but the computer was back where it was when I bought it years earlier. This gave me an opportunity to observe how much had changed since then.

First I reinstalled the antivirus program and waited for it to update all the new virus definitions that had been issued since it was new. Then I went to Windows Update and was greeted with the message that 74 “important” updates had accumulated since I bought the computer. This took over an hour and a restart. But on each of the three subsequent days, there were more “important” updates, for a total of over 100.

By way of comparison, my car is 17 years old – much older than my computer. In all that time, there have been two minor recalls that never affected the operation of the car.

Cars have been manufactured for over a century, while personal computers are only a few decades old. One expects young technologies to change faster than mature technologies. But I couldn’t help wondering how many of the over 100 updates were as necessary as the two recalls for my car, which as far as I could see weren’t really necessary at all. In other words, which updates were real improvements, and which were just updates?

For example, among the over 100 updates installed on my computer was one I did not want. My column had line breaks where there were none, and some words were in Times New Roman instead of Arial. So I uninstalled the intrusive updates. But every time I booted up my computer, a balloon nagged me that there are new updates. I was reminded daily that I had not conformed.

So the upside of the updates is that after considerable effort, the computer worked as well as it had before. Keeping things as they were is not my idea of “progress.” Making them worse is even less attractive. But it is “progressive.”

If an update accomplishes nothing useful, or even makes things worse, perhaps it should be called a downdate.

This is similar to the situation with chip credit cards, which were supposed to be less susceptible to fraud. It turns out that fraud is up, not down, but the cards are slower to run than the older strip cards. Nevertheless, we won’t go back to the older cards. The ratchet of technology moves only one way.

How much “change” is improvement, and how much is merely change for change’s sake? This obviously applies to former President Obama, who campaigned with the mantras of “hope” and “change.”

And now we have this headline: “Amazon Finds the Cause of Its AWS Outage: A Typo.” A system upon which millions depend was temporarily shut down because one employee inadvertently typed one incorrect command to the server network. What about the possibility that one hacker could type one incorrect command intentionally? That’s a question we aren’t supposed to ask.

In technology, the economic motive is strong. But in addition, the juvenile attraction to the “new” plays a powerful role. I was interested in seeing the new iPhones and iPads, but I did so a few weeks after their introduction, when I happened to walk by an Apple store. Yet thousands stood in line for hours, sometimes overnight. This goes beyond interest and approaches obsession.

As an automotive marketing executive commented, “In order to move up-market, you needed to be more stylish, more expensive, and less practical.” What does that say about us as consumers?

Note that the decades-old PRNDL pattern of automatic transmissions is now being “updated.” Another car maker is changing to a rotary dial to shift gears. How many damaged vehicles and injured people will result? But we must be “progressive” ‒ not only in electronic gizmos, but even in familiar mechanical devices. What’s next? Putting the gas pedal on the left and the brake pedal on the right? Impossible, you say? But once we become addicted to change for change’s sake, who knows?

Recently our iPhone updated itself without asking. The phone was unusable for the 20 minutes this required, and then it froze. The techs at the Apple store were able to unfreeze it, but what if we had needed the phone in an emergency? What if we didn’t live near an Apple store? No doubt the software of self-driving cars will have to update ‒ will the car freeze during or after the update? If so, will it freeze in the “on” or “off” position?

This message on your iPhone when you want to contact a friend would be irritating. This message on your laptop when a report is due at work would be infuriating. But what about this message on the “infotainment” screen of your self-driving car when you need to take your child to the doctor?


So I guess I’ll just stick with my old version of Windows and Internet Explorer – they work. I’ll download important updates if they address security issues. I won’t update my website as long as it works. I won’t drive myself crazy trying to keep up with “new and improved” versions that may be incompatible with one another, and probably won’t work with older versions of hardware or software.

And most important, I won’t let my desire for the latest technologic gizmos translate into a desire for the latest political and economic experiments. If Windows updates interfere with my writing, I can uninstall them. If iPhone updates freeze the phone, I can use a land line.

But if self-driving cars remove the yearning of young people to be self-sufficient drivers, we as a people will become even more passive. And if the latest left-wing political and economic schemes are incompatible with my freedom, it will be impossible to revert to the constitutional republic in which I grew up. It will no longer exist, except in my memory. It will have been updated.

Author’s Note:
See “Comfortably Dumb” by John Pearley Huffman, Car and Driver, May 2017.

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