Monday, March 11

What's Next? Riderless Bicycles?

Last week I was listening to NPR on my morning commute. I do those things now. Commute in my car, listen to the radio, cry… Anyway, there was a story on driverless cars and who is liable in an accident involving them.

Before the story developed I was disturbed. As it is in our culture liability is largely skewed and is a concept redesigned to benefit all the wrong people. For those cyclists out there (hopefully still reading) I’m sure we can all cite our favorite story of injustice where some distracted or inebriated motorist struck a cyclist or a pedestrian and got away with little more than a slap on the wrist, or worse yet, the true victim in the situation bore all the blame.
When we add another layer of complexity to the already disgusting mess that is the insurance and legal systems I think we’re exceeding the effectiveness of all parts of the greater system. Driverless cars will only encourage more finger pointing, denial of responsibility, and a complete inattention to the true victims in collisions.
No one will be liable, everyone (car owners, manufacturers, etc) will have someone else to blame, and the courts will become mired down in trying to sort out the mess. Of course, the point of the story seemed to be the need to draft legislation to address this new phenomenon, but I doubt more laws on our roadways will improve anything.
So I have some questions. Who programs how sensitive the driverless car’s sensors are? Sensing a cyclist on the side of the road would be a special consideration. The car would need to identify the cyclist against the background noise, assess the cyclists’ speed, potentially assess the cyclists’ intentions, plan for passing with enough room to be safe, and also be programed to prevent right hooks, left hooks, doorings, etc, etc.

Oh yeah, if I’m dreaming I’m dreaming big. Those programmers better factor in doorings, because once we motorists start letting the car drive you know the next thing we’re going to want the car to do is open our door for us, followed by voice activated windows, air conditioning and then a feature where the car goes out and does all your errands while you watch golf from your hoverchair by the pool.
When you program a driverless car, does the car prioritize the safety of road users outside the car or inside? In other words, does the car follow the Three Laws of Robotics? Whoo hoo! Getting all sci-fi geek on you, eh?
Let’s quick review those three laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Driverless cars are going to !@#$ up the first law. Humans won’t be able to program driverless cars in such a way that injurious or fatal collisions cease. The reason humans won’t be able to effectively program driverless cars to obey Asimov’s first robotic law is because the car is still going to be the priority. Robotic cars won’t slow down, NO, we’ll use the automation as a rationalization to speed the !@#$ers up. And as long as the speeds are faster than that of a human scale then the slower-moving objects will continue to get pulverized. So let me restate the first sentence: Human programmers are going to !@#$ up the first law.
Do I really believe this? Maybe not 100%. But based on recent history I believe that profit will be the primary driver, and if profit can be maximized at the expense of a few pedestrians and cyclists (acceptable collateral damage) then the programming will not be as tight as it should be. If the profit margins are high enough, we know that corporations would rather take their chances and just pay fines, settled for millions, and watch the profits roll right over them.
Who will watch out for pedestrians and cyclists? Y’know, those of us not driving right now.
I don’t think driverless cars are a good idea. I mean, you don’t burn a ton of calories driving, but for pity’s sake, aren’t we fat enough from our sedentary lifestyles? Are we too lazy to continue driving with the minimal level of attention that’s become standard in our society? Why not invest in transit instead of this technological dead end? 
And, like the title of the post, if we continue down this road of absurdities, what’s next? Riderless bicycles?


  1. The minimal level of attention people pay when they are driving is one of the reasons autopiloted cars might be a good thing. Just saying. An auto piloted car won't pull this sh!t:

    But a human driver would. I agree that it is a touchy thing. Mechanical stuff can break or fail, but human's can to.

    1. Doug,

      I can sort of agree with you on that. And I've had similar experiences to what you describe in your post. However, I think we should strongly insist that people start taking driving more seriously. That's what I see as the true problem. And having driverless cars won't make us see it any more realistically. Driving becomes so second nature to people that they take it for granted and don't grant it the attention it demands.

      And then you have some joker who knows exactly what he's doing and decides to try and run you over and blows the whole argument out of the water.

      And if he was in a driverless car he'd be able to lean out the window and swing a baseball bat at your head with far more accuracy as you rode along.

      I don't know, I still think employing another layer of technoology just increases the complexity and brings us closer to critical failure.