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Robocars

Sorry to the small (and possibly nonexistent) number of you that regularly come here, I haven’t gotten bored of blogging or run out of ideas but now that my initial enthusiasm has waned I’m taking a more relaxed approach to blogging. I will probably never be a prolific poster on the order of Mike Anissimov or Tyler Cowen, or even Kyle Munkittrick (who was an inspiration of sorts for starting this). Maybe some day, but the copious free time I thought I had is, well, less copious than I thought. I’ve been writing a few posts, which should trickle in as time goes by, but I’ve decided to draft them more carefully and review them a bit more before posting.

But today, a short post about Robocars.

Anyone who knows me well has probably heard me talk about how soon our cars will be driving themselves. I don’t claim any credit for the idea, science fiction writers have been talking about it for a long time, probably since cars were invented. But I still hear people say “I wouldn’t trust a robot to drive me around, what if it goes crazy?”. To which I usually respond “which is more likely? Your robot driver going crazy or your human driver?”. Which of course is ignoring the incredibly low probability of an AI driver getting drunk, falling asleep at the wheel, or getting distracted answering his phone or changing the radio station. But this argument usually ends with “Whatever, it’s going to be a long time until that happens anyway”.

Well it isn’t. Robotic cars are coming sooner than you think. There are already cars that park themselves. This year, a car is coming out that brakes to avoid hitting pedestrians. Some nut in California has even built a system for a Prius that drives itself. It’s only a matter of time before we all have these. Seriously, it’s not just some lone crazy (me) saying this; the vice president of R&D at GM says we’ll have fully autonomous cars by 2020.

And this will be a good thing. Usually when left leaning types hear this argument, their next fear (after safety) is that this will mean a postponement of the inevitable death of the car. Our wonderful public transit future where everyone rides high speed rail or bikes is slipping away. I’m with them on the bikes (and E-bikes are going to make this even better), but trains of all types are an expensive waste of energy, and are very difficult to move or reconfigure as demographics change. Buses are a much better option, although I personally find them to be overcrowded nausea inducing death traps, but they would also benefit from autonomous control. If we can all have energy-efficient robot taxis driving us around, rural citizens included, why do we need trains OR buses, except to satisfy some communitarian dream of everyone travelling together?

Since I’m all about making falsifiable predictions to track my understanding of where the world is going, here’s today’s: I’ll probably have to drive the first car I buy, but the second (or maybe the third) will be able to drive itself.

If you need more convincing of the utility and feasibility of this technology, see Brad Templeton’s presentation at Foresight 2010. The robot cars are coming, and when they get here we’ll all be better off for it.

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