Built on Facts

Science, PR, and Human Nature

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The Terminator?

Which headline do you think would sell more papers?

INTELLIGENT ROBOTS KILL 20,000, NO SIGN OF STOPPING

or

AUTO FATALITIES DECLINE 50%

In a nutshell, this is the PR problem of technology. Technological progress is taken for granted, and technological problems are trumpeted to the skies. In this case, I’m pessimistic about the chances of autonomous cars. Here’s an article for Motor Trend which isn’t really about the safety of robot cars, but which takes the following shot anyway:

“Driving will be safer,” say the experts. “Computers will ensure that smart cars always maintain a safe distance between each other.” Uh, just a moment. In the shockingly brief amount of time I’ve spent writing this column, my PC has already crashed twice. Now just imagine 3000 morning commuters in their state-of-the-art, four-wheeled Intels, barreling down the freeway at 70 mph in perfect, computerized formation, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the lead car’s robot coughs up the Blue Screen of Death. Personally, I don’t want to be at the site of the steaming wreckage when Bill Gates arrives to say, “Perhaps you folks would like to try our new SmartCar 2020 upgrade?”

Uh, just a moment. Robot cars don’t need to be perfectly safe. If 20,000 people a year die from computer crashes causing real crashes, that’s still about 20,000 or so fewer fatalities than us meat computers manage to rack up every year. Is the emotional response of the public going to agree? Like the headlines above, I doubt it. And this is true despite the fact that unlike people, purpose-built AI gets continuously better and better. The next year will have fewer robot car fatalities and the trend would continue.

This kind of sensationalist thinking has helped hold back the nuclear power industry. Despite the fact that coal power kills coal miners, hurts the environment, and releases radioactivity, it’s nuclear that people are afraid of. And that because of one failure, built by incompetent communists following a horrible design and then deliberately disabling safety mechanisms to run tests. Even then the total human loss was a few dozen killed in the immediate aftermath, and a few thousand cancer deaths in the years following. Nothing compared to the bloodbath on the roads, and in practice impossible with today’s technology. But here we are, with many people still terrified of nuclear power. Here we are again with the LHC, with all the news about the “end of the world”, and now the hysteria over a broken and fixable helium blowout. Technology needs better PR.

Here would be my strategy for the robot cars. Tie the robots into a GPS system, and have them only function on the comparatively easy interstate system. Once the public is more confident in the system, gradually extend the law to let the robots drive on stat highways, and then major city roads, and then finally everywhere. Over a few years I think the large numbers of saved lives would help avoid the dramatic “ROBOTS KILL” headlines. The point is to do the best job possible of avoiding dramatically bad headlines. Be gradual.

In conclusion, I want my robot car. It’s 2008. Let’s get going!

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    September 26, 2008

    Will the Screen of Death still be a calming “do not panic” blue?

    Sunday afternoon, Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, 70 mph bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic for almost 40 miles. It’s an amazing circumstance to drive in. If anybody has a car that starts babbling “I’m a PC!”, wipeout. “This is OnStar. Please do not remove car battery, reinstall, then reboot. We will have an Officer with an outstanding warrant for your arrest visiting shortly.”

    There is a point beyond which giving the incapable prostheses is a bad idea, ditto the State. Head Start, United Nations, and a $6 trillion taxpayer bailout of crooks, liars, and friends of Bush the Lesser come to mind.

  2. #2 llewelly
    September 26, 2008

    You can thank Microsoft for the widespread belief that computers necessarily crash all the time. My computer hasn’t crashed for years. (Although a few months ago I managed to get firefox into a state where the only solution was to kill it, none of my other apps were affected.) Why? I don’t run windows. But just as crashes under Linux or FBSD are thousands of times less likely than crashes under windows, software used to control robot trains, robot airliners (oh, wait, maybe I should say ‘autopilot’), robot tankers, and so forth, is thousands of times less likely to crash than linux or FBSD.
    It’s possible to produce software that hardly ever malfunctions. But thanks to Microsoft, people think that’s impossible. Bill Gates killed your robot car.

  3. #3 Ian
    September 26, 2008

    I run Vista and rarely crash my computer – even XP would be a very extreme rare crash. What causes most crashes is people not treating their computers nicely. ATMs rarely crash, the computers running the LHC will likely rarely crash (etc) – home computers are completely different than dedicated systems.

    It’s too bad that the media and public both don’t really understand science and technology with a proper appreciation.

  4. #4 dkw
    September 26, 2008

    The two real problems that prevent this from ever happening are liability and control.

    Even if fatal accidents are reduced dramatically with a computer controlled system, let’s say to 1000, each one of those 1000 fatalities will result in a large lawsuit against both whoever made the computer and software for the car, and whatever goverment entity (or whoever it is) that runs the infrastructure to control the vehicles. Now, almost every accident is assumed to be the fault of one of the drivers, and it is terribly rare for the car to be at fault.

    But the main reason this will never happen is people will not give up the control of driving themselves. Even if it is safer and more efficient, it’s not something people will like. Americans (and I imagine this is more than an American thing) hated being told that they HAD to wear seatbelts. They hate when they are told to drive the speed limit. Any restriction leads to whining and complaining. There is no way, even if technology was available enough people would submit to this to make it feasible.

  5. #5 Peter Morgan
    September 26, 2008

    Other increments are possible. There are already manoeuvring systems that tell you how far you are from obstacles behind your car. There are already systems called cruise control. Add to cruise control detection of vehicles in front of mine, the highway-relative and to-me-relative speeds of vehicles, an auto-distance keeper option on your cruise control, and we’re almost there.
    With auto-distance keeping, I imagine the peak traffic capacity of the outside lane (at least on the more aggressively driven New England highways) would decrease significantly, since no manufacturer’s lawyers would let the automatically kept distance between vehicles at 70 mph be 5 yards.
    Even with ordinary cruise control, however, it’s more possible to zone out than when not using it. As systems become more capable, there comes a point where the robotics has to be able to deal with any unexpected road conditions, and with any actions, no matter how stupid, by non-robotically controlled vehicles. Also non-robotically controlled deer. Even something as simple as lane-following encourages a driver to be far less attentive to possible emergencies than they should be. Testing such robotics noteasy.

  6. #6 Matt Springer
    September 26, 2008

    There is no way, even if technology was available enough people would submit to this to make it feasible.

    I don’t think you need to make people submit to it. Let people choose if they want one or not. The robots can put extra distance between them and the non-robots for safety, and the dramatically lower insurance for robot cars would provide a pretty strong incentive to switch voluntarily. Eventually it would become mainstream by simple attrition. Hopefully, anyway.

  7. #7 Zifnab
    September 26, 2008

    There is no way, even if technology was available enough people would submit to this to make it feasible.

    I disagree to a degree. The first place you’ll see auto-navigation systems is with those who can’t drive themselves. If I’ve got no hands and no feet, and I still need to get to the other side of town, I’ll bite the bullet and get an electric car. If my driver’s license has been revoked or I’m too young or too old to drive myself, that automated system starts looking pretty good.

    Once people see other people traveling to their destinations safely and quickly, I’m sure business folks will jump on the bandwagon when they realize they can have an office in their cars.

    And it’ll roll out from there.

    This assumes gas doesn’t spike up to $10 / gallon, at which point we’ll all be riding the bus or the train anyway. And then who the hell cares about smart cars when only the ten richest people in the world can afford to drive them anyway.

  8. #8 Carl Brannen
    September 26, 2008

    Great topic Matt. I believe this is inevitable. The way it will come about is through the insurance companies. They will give people who use the system a discount. And it will be the insurance companies that pay the lawsuits.

    But there will always be a few people who are safer than the machines. My cousin and his wife drove (tanker) trucks for years without getting into accidents. About 2 million miles, I believe.(And I should add that he operated from out your way, in Freeport, near Galveston.)

    Now he owns a business that rewinds starters and alternators and that sort of thing. Another application of physics that would make a great post. How does an alternator work?

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    September 26, 2008

    Others pointed out the ignorance of the Motor Trend writer about the difference between CrapWare (TM) written in a language where memory leaks are the norm and the kind of “robot” software currently used in fly-by-wire systems and the languages (like ADA) that they are written in … but I will repeat it. Some aircraft only have an ejection seat as a backup system, but others retain mechanical backups and basic instruments should the “glass cockpit” fail.

    What seems to be missed is how annoyed people would be when it takes longer to get somewhere because their car refuses to tailgate and keeps backing off when they get passed by someone who cuts in front of them. Imagine the LA freeways with cars keeping proper separation distances!

  10. #10 Vanya
    September 27, 2008

    There’s a potential side benefit to this technology, and that is fewer traffic jams. If cars maintain a proper distance between each other, based on speed, traffic will flow faster.

  11. #11 Paul Murray
    September 28, 2008

    Meh. 20 years from now, who is going to have a privately-owned car? Only the absurdly rich will be able to put gas in the tank and, given the current turmoil those people have caused, effort put into measures that might serve to preserve those people’s lives might be better spent elsewhere.

  12. #12 MartinB
    September 29, 2008

    I agree with most of this post except for the end:

    “Despite the fact that coal power kills coal miners, hurts the environment, and releases radioactivity, it’s nuclear that people are afraid of. And that because of one failure…”

    That’s not all there is to it. It seems not totally honest to accuse coal power of releasing radioactivity and not even mentioning that we still have absolutely no clue what to do with radioactive waste which will be active for a time longer that since the pyramids were built.

    And, of course, if another Chernobyl happens closer to a large city, then we’ll easily be in numbers of deaths surpassing all car accidents everywhere.

  13. #13 Matt Springer
    September 29, 2008

    This will make a good topic for a post eventually, but long story short, radioactivity is a lot easier to deal with than people think. Waste is radioactive for many thousands of years, but then so is a banana. Nuclear waste is only very dangerous high-level waste for a few hundred years. Even then, much longer-term storage techniques like vitrification can hold waste essentially forever as long as no one digs it up. Some technologies like nuclear transmutation can actually reduce the lifetime of radioactivity by orders of magnitude.

    Reactor meltdown is also effectively impossible in modern reactors. Consider that there’s only been one ever, in an ancient Soviet bloc reactor that was badly designed and then deliberately pushed past the point of safety as an experiment.

  14. #14 Dunc
    September 30, 2008

    But the main reason this will never happen is people will not give up the control of driving themselves.

    Yep, absolutely. It’s already one of the reasons why a lot of people refuse to use public transport – they don’t want to give up the illusion of autonomy.

  15. #15 efrique
    October 1, 2008

    And that because of one failure, built by incompetent communists following a horrible design and then deliberately disabling safety mechanisms to run tests.

    Wait a minute… incompetent communists built the reactor at Three Mile Island?

    Or did you mean the one at Sellafield that had all those leaks?

    Gee, those commies get around.

  16. #16 Matt Springer
    October 2, 2008

    You’re right. Three Mile Island was a true disaster, killing… um, no one. But it did cause… well, no injuries either. Seriously though, it would probably be a blip in the public consciousness were it not for hysteria generated but to the simultaneous release of The China Syndrome.

    And Sellafield was orders of magnitude less severe than Three Mile Island.

  17. #17 llewelly
    October 3, 2008

    Consider that there’s only been one ever, in an ancient Soviet bloc reactor that was badly designed and then deliberately pushed past the point of safety as an experiment.

    This is partly untrue. Chernobyl-4 was the only complete meltdown in a civilian reactor. Other meltdowns have occurred, but they have either been partial (TMI-2) or were military reactors (mostly Soviet nuclear submarines), or both (the windscale fire involved a partial meltdown). In any case – the meltdown was not the worst thing that occurred at Chernobyl-4. It was the explosion that blew the top off of the reactor, allowing a great deal of radioactive smoke – airborne radioactive particulates – to spew out of of the reactor. (An explosion of that sort was impossible at TMI-2 – and even if such a thing had somehow occurred, it would have been unlikely to burst a giant hole in the top of the reactor building. (The RMBK’s (Chernobyl-4’s) top was designed to be easy to remove, to facilitate refueling, and prior to Chernobyl-4, RMBKs did not have containment buildings.)

    FWIW … there are still 12 RMBKs operating in the world … albeit retrofitted to reduce the likely hood of Chernobyl-4 type accident occurring.

  18. #18 llewelly
    October 3, 2008

    And Sellafield was orders of magnitude less severe than Three Mile Island.

    This is not true in any useful sense. Almost of all (more than 99.9%) of the radioactive material released in the TMI-2 accident was krypton-85, which is not biologically active, as it is a noble gas. The Sellafield (Windscale) fire released greater amounts of iodine-131 than TMI-2. Not only is iodine taken into the body, it is concentrated in the thyroid. The difference is seen the roughly 240 additional cancer cases estimated for the Sellafield fire, versus less than 1 additional cancer case for the TMI-2 accident.

  19. #19 california drug rehab
    March 26, 2009

    This is not to say that public relations cannot and does not use some scientific and statistical techniques, or that its outcomes are totally unpredictable

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