Home > Life in General > The IT revolution comes to transport

The IT revolution comes to transport

January 8th, 2017

One of the striking features of technological progress over the past fifty years or so has been that of incredibly rapid progress in information and communications technology, combined with near-stasis in most other sectors. Here’s what I wrote on the topic in 2003, and could have reposted, essentially unchanged, a decade later

On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.

In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.

At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.

Quite suddenly, this looks out of date. Electric cars, drones and, most significantly, self-driving vehicles have been transformed from curiosities (or, in the case of drones, military hardware with no apparent positive value to humanity) to the likely transport technologies of the near future.

There have been quite a few thinkpieces about these topics, particularly self-driving vehicles, but nothing I’ve seen has been really satisfactory to me. The central focus has been on the challenge of introducing imperfect self-driving vehicles to our current road network. But if we’ve learned anything from the last fifty years (from electronic watches to desktop publishing to digital cameras) it’s that, whatever the initial limitations, a technology that’s been digitised will inevitably improve to the point where it outperforms the analog competition on just about every dimension.

So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions

* what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;

and, more importantly,

* if unskilled or careless human drivers are more dangerous to fellow road users and pedestrians than self-driving vehicles, should they be allowed to drive at all?

To spell out the second point a bit further, if self-driving vehicles are readily available and affordable (and particularly if self-driving technology can be retrofitted to existing vehicles), there’s no argument from the necessity of personal mobility to give speeders and drunk drivers multiple chances to kill other road users. The fact that these people might enjoy driving themselves is scarcely relevant. In fact, to the extent that enjoyable driving is dangerous driving (and, in my limited experience, it mostly is), it’s an argument against allowing it.

Just writing this, I can imagine the ferocity of the responses. I suspect that policies on self-driving cars will turn out to be a long-running front in the endless culture wars in which we seem to be permanently enmeshed.

There’s a lot more to think about here, but that’s enough to be going on with.

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  1. John Street
    January 8th, 2017 at 14:22 | #1

    Good one, nicely provocative.

  2. Donald Oats
    January 8th, 2017 at 14:43 | #2

    Taxi drivers might find that their licenses are rapidly devalued, once the “automobile”—i.e. the driverless car—replaces the common car. The big issue will then be how to ensure that the “automobile” is safe from hoons, etc; that could be dealt with by something as simple as an identifying card, like a drivers license or a passport, something that can be automagically checked against the person stepping into the automobile. In all likelihood though, once the automobile gains traction, people will begin to wonder why they are wasting all this space to run road networks designed for faulty human drivers, when the automobile is far superior and doesn’t need all these signs and things, etc. A digital transport network designed to exploit the automobile’s artificial intelligence and on-board computer makes a lot of sense.

    As always though, who really knows?

  3. Ronald Brakels
    January 8th, 2017 at 15:14 | #3

    Whether or not people should still be allowed to drive once autonomous driving is common place may not be a huge problem. If a vehicle is capable of self driving then I presume people will be allowed to drive it themselves up until they start doing something dangerous at which point the car will take over. I can even imagine senile people and men’s rights activists thinking they they are in full control of the car as it actually does most of the work of ferrying them around.

    As for cars that aren’t self driving, the danger should decrease dramatically the fewer of them there are. If 90% of the cars on the road are self driving then it would be quite possible to arrange, through the operation of traffic lights and so on, a separation of human driven cars from other self driving cars. A protective barrier made out of robots that will help prevent the unpredictable human drivers from having too much contact from each other and always with escape routes the automated cars can follow if the human driver falls asleep or does something reckless. Or maybe wreckfull.

    Any human who drives unsafely will have their acts recorded by 90% of the vehicles on the road, and will soon be prohibited from driving without autonomous backup. So the only human drivers left will likely be careful ones and they will have a protective buffer zone so most of the time they will only hurt themselves.

    Of course, eventually all driving would be autonomous and manual only vehicles banned from roads. Even the best drivers are still only human.

  4. January 8th, 2017 at 15:26 | #4

    John — how would you say the promise of self-driving vehicles impacts on the worthiness of the light rail projects recently commenced in Sydney? Would it be more efficient to simply wait for the self-driving technology to mature and, if necessary, adapt the roads to suit them? I’m thinking of dedicated lanes, special kinds of marking — i.e., relatively cheap adaptations that Sydney has already undertaken for buses.

  5. hc
    January 8th, 2017 at 15:44 | #5

    My Subaru Outback has limited self-driving capabilities. Certainly, cruise control with forward and backward looking other-vehicle-sensitive, lane change sensitive cameras make things simpler and safer for the driver. I am generally a bit of a Luddite with respect to gadgetry but really like these features.

    I think you are right – self-driving vehicles are not far off. People might drive more too if the user costs of making as journey go down.

  6. ChrisH
    January 8th, 2017 at 16:01 | #6

    Peter #4 might imply the commonplace suggestion that public transport projects should be put on hold until we know what self driving vehicles will do. (That may not be what Peter means – but it was a general trope in recent Liberal Party propaganda before and after the recent ACT election.)

    Self driving cars may well mean cheaper roads as they make road use more economical (with closer vehicles at all speeds, simpler engineering and so on). Self driving cars may mean fewer cars (as self driven cars drop the passenger and go, and as vehicle sharing becomes more workable). Self driving cars may mean smaller footprint housing, services, and workplaces (with fewer car parks and those parks covering smaller areas).

    But no one suggests that parking requirements for developments be abandoned now while we see what self driving cars may do. No one suggests stopping road development projects. No one suggests reduced provision for cars.

    Yet putting public transport projects on hold, for fear of stranded assets, gets raised daily.

    Why, it’s almost as if some people think public transport should be a last resort and something that provides for needs that should be met only as far into the future as possible, at the lowest cost possible, at the poorest performance possible – while private transport is an immediate need so important that no consideration of economic cost or of possible asset stranding should ever come into planning.

  7. Smith
    January 8th, 2017 at 18:38 | #7

    I don’t see the culture issues looming large. The point of driving a car is to get from point A to point B. If it could be done more safely, more reliably and more cheaply using self-driving cars, most people will be glad to see it, because most people are pragmatists. Of course there will be people who insist on being able to drive themselves for reasons of personal liberty, but they will disappear thanks to a combination of three forces:

    a) demography, drivers will grow old while new generations will see driving a car yourself as quaint as listening to a transistor radio

    b) market forces, as insurance companies make the cost of insuring a human-driven car prohibitively expensive and

    c) regulation, as the cost of registering a human driven car becomes prohibitively expensive.

    There might be a political fight around c), but most people won’t care because it won’t affect them.

  8. Smith
    January 8th, 2017 at 18:52 | #8

    An exciting development reported this week is that an an Israeli company is developing a flying car drone, and hopes to have on the market in 2020. It had a successful test flight in November. The development motivation is for it is military, to evacuate people from dangerous situations, but it will have wider applications.

    The era of the Jetsons may be upon us soon.

  9. john
    January 8th, 2017 at 19:00 | #9

    over 30 years ago i was a contributor to a project to try and mitigate the problem of carnage on roads.
    The solution that was proposed was not taken up.
    It was to introduce a sensible system of driver evaluation of capability.
    All persons who had a licence would have to had gone through the program.
    It was expected that at least 20% of applicants would have failed, both new and present holders of licences.
    Naturally the various state governments would not have a bar of having a system of proper training and evaluation they preferred to just put up fines for speeding as the solution.
    Frankly until the motor vehicle which is sold as a personality extender is regarded as simply a means of transport i do not see any change any time soon.
    The quicker autonomous vehicles are introduced with the attendant infrastructure is taken up the better for society.

  10. Kfix
    January 8th, 2017 at 19:18 | #10

    Smith @ 7

    It’s that sort of ignorance of the cultural place of driving that guarantees there will be issues. Just look at the massive increase in recreational motorcycling in recent years for one thing, and in other forms of recreational driving – club motorsport and track days, 4WD parks, remote camping etc.

    Think guns, but more like the US debate on guns, if you want to see how people will react if banned altogether from roads. Far more likely IMHO is a staged process where bans start in inner cities and very slowly progress outwards. I would expect human driven free (except for service and emergency vehicles) CBDs within 10 years, but well over 50 years for the same process to spread to rural areas. And, somewhat like guns, tightly regulated on and off road tracks (increasingly remote and expensive) to cater to enthusiasts.

  11. Ernestine Gross
    January 8th, 2017 at 19:46 | #11

    I wonder how the legal system will deal with driver-less cars. It may well be such cars are less accident prone than human-driven cars in a statistical sense. But technical failure is not excluded. Therefore accidents are not excluded – something the foregoing discussions seem to have missed. Who will be held responsible in a collision of two or more driver-less cars? Their owners? The manufacturers? Or are insurance companies required to pay all with suitable adjustments of premiums?

    What if malignant hackers get involved?

    How many people are prepared to give up more privacy [1] in exchange for less personal skills and responsibility?

    [1] Intelligent Teslas recognise their owners and, upon recognition, unlock the doors. One of the owners, known to me, reported a non-recognition via electronic means. Shortly thereafter, the car did recognise him. All good. But then a message came from a third country, saying your problem has been resolved 26 minutes ago. Is there a continuous log book somewhere, which the owner discovers by chance only??

  12. Smith
    January 8th, 2017 at 19:54 | #12


    I didn’t say anything about banning driving. I said that the number of people who want to drive themselves will drop when self-driving vehicles become the norm.

    No doubt there will be always be a small number of enthusiasts who want to drive themselves. As long as they are safe drivers, that will be fine with me.

  13. Peter T
    January 8th, 2017 at 19:56 | #13

    JQ understates the technical improvements of the last 3 decades. 30 years ago a car needed servicing every 3 months, used much more fuel, and had a one or two year warranty. Now its service every year, and 5 year warranties. And much cheaper. Same with trains (think TGVs, but also running suburban trains with 2 minute separation). Both due to continued incremental improvements to all aspects of understood technologies – better metallurgy, better machining, better integration of functions.

  14. January 8th, 2017 at 20:07 | #14

    Hi @ChrisH. To clarify my point slightly: I’m curious to know if the Eastern Suburbs light rail project in Sydney is worth the cost (recently blown out to > $2B) in light of this technology. One could imagine public self-driving vehicles etc. so it’s not a question of private v’s public, but whether putting the rails in the ground is economically efficient in ~ 2020 or whenever it comes properly on line. One reason I think it won’t be is that the passengers per hour figures are too low (IIRC 9000/hr) to handle all the existing demand (IIRC ~ 50,000 daily to UNSW etc. from Central), which implies there’ll be a need for buses to continue service anyway. One might hope that self-driving somethings (private and public!) will be cheaper and more efficient.

    The original plan from way back for servicing UNSW etc. involved heavy rail — the Bondi line, tunnelling, reserved rail corridors sold off by the State Labor government not too long ago, etc. That would have been a different proposition as it might cope with the commuter traffic.

  15. Ron E Joggles
    January 8th, 2017 at 20:28 | #15

    Obviously a self-driving vehicle is out of the question getting to my CYP property, with “roads” being 2 wheel ruts winding through the trees and frequent stream crossings – so will I be allowed to drive my Land Cruiser to town? This would apply to country towns everywhere.

    Surely autonomous vehicles will have to be limited to metropolitan areas for the foreseeable future.

    And in those metro areas, what about the poor battler who can’t afford his own “autocar” but has to summon one when necessary? Odds on the wait will be long, especially if you live in the outer suburbs with all the other proles.

    Of course, the motoring enthusiast (largely a classless obsession) will be limited to driving the Model T or the GTHO on special tracks on special days, if you’re wealthy enough.

    All in all, it’s part of the trend to ever-increasing disparity between the poverty of the ordinary working family, and the privilege of the professional classes. Goodbye to the revolutionary liberating mobility that the private family vehicle gave us for most of the previous century.

  16. Suburbanite
    January 8th, 2017 at 20:39 | #16

    Driverless cars seem inevitable, but I’m not optimistic that it will be all good. There is a long history of people imagine high-minded uses for new technology – the early imaginings of how TV would transform humanity were pretty far off.

    I’m imagining behemoths catering to luxury and entertainment so that the freed up driver can travel in their living rooms, not efficient pods.

  17. Ron E Joggles
    January 8th, 2017 at 21:02 | #17

    Ernestine Gross :
    I wonder how the legal system will deal with driver-less cars?

    Imagine a situation in which a driverless B-double has to choose which little car to run over, and which to avoid.

    Presumably all driverless vehicles will be linked via the interweb, so perhaps the algorithm will choose on the basis of how many humans are contained in each projectile/target; or maybe culpability will decide the matter.. or net worth? A debate conducted at the speed of light could ensue right up to the moment of impact!

    What about motorcycles? Just you try to tell us we can’t ride our bikes wherever we bloody well want!

    And obviously cyclists will no longer be permitted on roads, but restricted to velodromes and cycle paths with no interaction with other traffic.

    Some interesting dilemmas.

  18. Ikonoclast
    January 8th, 2017 at 21:21 | #18

    I agree with J.Q. on this topic. Phew, I feel relieved that I can agree! 🙂

    Let’s not forget about public transport (buses, tram, trains). We will be better off with fewer autos and more and better public transport in cities and towns. The country and outback is another issue of course.

  19. Robert Merkel
    January 8th, 2017 at 22:11 | #19

    Attempts to ban motorcycles have gone nowhere, despite the well documented risks.

    As such, banning “recreational driving”, a pastime enjoyed by a considerably larger group, is likely to go nowhere fast.

    Ronald Brakels’ solution of the car that lets meatspace drive until meatspace does something stupid and takes over is more likely; we’re already well on the way there.

  20. AlexJ
    January 8th, 2017 at 22:35 | #20

    I welcome the continued development of self-driving vehicles.

    They will be a massive boon to public transport — as I understand things, the single largest incremental cost of providing bus service in Western countries today is paying the driver.

    As for vehicle size and whether Light Rail is going to be obsolete etc etc — geometry dictates that multi-occupant vehicles will continue to be better than single-occupant vehicles anywhere road space is significantly constrained, i.e. cities.

    Jarrett Walker of Human Transit has published a number of articles on this sort of thing; here’s two:
    http://humantransit.org/2016/11/how-innovation-chatter-limits-your-mobility-today-election-edition.html — on ‘obsolescence’
    http://humantransit.org/2016/07/elon-musk-doesnt-understand-geometry.html — on ‘geometry’

    tl;dr remember it’s self-driving VEHICLES, not just CARS.

  21. January 8th, 2017 at 22:55 | #21

    Q1: what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant?

    Technically, they’ll probably be electric, which radically reduces maintenance costs. This presumes that AVs are deployed as a service – i.e. stored in corrals on the edge of town overnight for recharging – hence the media emphasis on the joys of non-ownership and the potential to free up real estate.

    Socially, they’ll be a modern take on the sedan chair. They’ll start in high-value city centres (where there are more rich buyers and more young professional renters who have been trained by Uber). Current congestion/pollution-charging zones will become hard boundaries. We may even see the reintroduction of city gates.

    Q2: if unskilled or careless human drivers are more dangerous to fellow road users and pedestrians than self-driving vehicles, should they be allowed to drive at all?

    The same argument could be applied to cyclists and pedestrians. AVs will still kill people who run into the road due to momentum – i.e. a robot braking doesn’t overcome the laws of physics. The focus is therefore likely to be banning manual drivers in restricted areas, not banning them outright.

    As other commenters have noted, this will give rise to a culture war even more profound than gun ownership in the US. Our best hope is that AVs can be pitched as beneficial to rural rednecks, which means advocating the pleasures drunk-driving.

  22. jrkrideau
    January 8th, 2017 at 22:59 | #22

    It seems to me that a serious problem with automobiles whether human asking for a new (well n or automatically controlled is that they consume vast resources that public transit does not. In particular they eat up space.

    If we consider that with driverless cars, we could go to something like a taxi situation, as I have heard one of the founders of Uber suggest, is likely this reduces the space consumption considerably but, if we assume little ride sharing, we will still have a demand for a lot of cars on the road and a lot of parking/storage space required for off-peak times. If we assume ride-sharing we are left with a bunch of mini-buses meandering around the suburbs picking up people here and there. Not necessarily a huge improvement on public transit in terms of travel time or energy use.

    Also, I think this discounts the fact that many people seem to use their cars as mobile storage space so we may need the emergence of a new (well, old) local delivery service for such things as bulky purchases if one is not intending to go directly home, say, with the new stepladder. Come to think of it, cars/personal autos are the equivalent and forerunner of the just in time delivery situation where a lot of warehouse space is now on wheels and roaring down the autoroutes–or sitting in a traffic jam on said autoroute.

    And for a rather fun thought about the effect of driverless cars in urban areas see http://www.john-adams.co.uk/2016/08/17/driverless-cars-and-the-sacred-cow-problem/. I wonder if the technologists may be accidentally creating woonerfs?

    Re Drones

    I don’t know about Australia but here in Canada, and I believe most of the rest of North America, drones appear to be evolving as a significant tool in agriculture. See http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/drones-quietly-changing-agriculture-from-the-skies-1.3727976 or https://www.technologyreview.com/s/526491/agricultural-drones/

    I have heard CBC interviews with RCMP and Search & Rescue personnel describing the use of small drones for searches in rough terrain. Even under current Canadian regulations that fairly strictly limit the range of small drones it seems they can considerably expand a search area in some cases. As far as I am aware, these drones do not carry missiles.

    There have been some reports of small drones being used to make deliveries of illicit drugs to various prisons and correctional institutions. Amazon, also, has been suggesting using them for fast delivery 🙂

  23. Charlene MacDonald
    January 8th, 2017 at 23:26 | #23

    Computers have no judgement.
    Thus there will never be driverless cars in mainstream use.

  24. jrkrideau
    January 8th, 2017 at 23:30 | #24

    @Robert Merkel
    Attempts to ban motorcycles have gone nowhere, despite the well documented risks.
    But, AFAIK, they usually only damage riders so it is just another risk sport, to a considerable extent, is it not?

    Larger automobiles kill and injure millions. WHO reports 1.25 million in 2013. Compared to this, Ebola was a sneeze. We seem not to mind human sacrifice to the car.

  25. January 9th, 2017 at 03:05 | #25

    “So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions”

    Most of the human safety issues are not about being a good or bad driver, but either (1) distraction or (2) alcohol.

    But even the best human drivers are no match for automated systems. Imagine the light turning green and all stopped cars immediately starting in sync with a computer-sized safety margin (1-10 miliseconds) as opposed to a human sized on (1-5 seconds!). There is simply no way for anyone to compete. The safety margin within which automated cars will operate are basically impossible for humans to achieve. A mix of 90% automated with 10% human will be slowed down by the humans too much.

  26. Ernestine Gross
    January 9th, 2017 at 03:43 | #26

    @Luis Pedro Coelho

    What happens if, for whatever reasons, there is a traffic light outage?

  27. Ikonoclast
    January 9th, 2017 at 06:36 | #27

    @Charlene MacDonald

    “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” – The Quarterly Review, March, 1825.

    “Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one which started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years–provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.” – The New York Times, Oct 9, 1903, p. 6.

    “That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.” – Scientific American, January 2, 1909.

    Charlene, you are not a journalist by any chance are you?

  28. Ikonoclast
    January 9th, 2017 at 06:43 | #28

    @Ernestine Gross

    Erm, driverless vehicles will still perform better than human driven ones? 🙂

    It does raise the issue of further pattern recognition though. A driverless vehicle must recognise a policeperson, via uniform I guess, and then it must recognise hand signals.

    Police may need special “signal-guns” which when pointed at a vehicle or stream of traffic (and also the correct button pressed) will give orders to driverless vehicles.

    Just don’t bet against progress in this field. The only thing which could stop human technological progress now is an ELE (extinction level event). That might well still happen of course, just to view the “big picture”.

  29. January 9th, 2017 at 07:52 | #29

    Peter: self-driving cars do practically nothing to reduce congestion. They could reduce the space taken by car parks and parking spaces, and slash the number if cars needed, if they are shared as seems likely. The externalities that create congestion don’t go down at all. The solution has been known for some time: congestion pricing plus better public transport (much more efficient in its use of road space). Unexciting, also political dynamite. Though it works in Singapore and London.

  30. January 9th, 2017 at 08:36 | #30

    Hi @James Wimberley. I’m not sure the Eastern Suburbs light rail is going to reduce congestion either — the trams themselves are longer than city blocks, so if they get stuck at the lights then they block intersections. Note also the low carrying capacity with respect to demand. Also why can’t a (public) bus (etc) be self-driving? One could imagine these forming ad hoc chains (and therefore simulating a tram, perhaps improving efficiency somehow), as I’m sure has been proposed. I’m imagining reserved lanes as is currently the case for buses in Sydney (for buses and trams).

    To clarify once again: I wonder if sticking rails in the ground for trams makes economic sense any more. I don’t see how congestion pricing would affect that either way. I’m not arguing against public transport, or against congestion pricing, just wondering what form is most economically efficient.

  31. Ben
    January 9th, 2017 at 08:36 | #31

    Another question is ownership. A self-driving vehicle can earn revenue 24 hours a day, giving a much higher level of utilisation and lower cost per kilometre. Who would bother owning one when they can drive for (say) 5 cents per km? Instead, I expect to see a much smaller number of vehicles operating at much higher utilisation. Are the manufacturers ready to make 10-20 times fewer vehicles?

  32. Ernestine Gross
    January 9th, 2017 at 10:05 | #32

    James Wimberley, Singapore is a city state with a landmass so small that walking is an alternative transport means for all able bodied people. Even after land reclamation, the size of Singapore is not quite 10% of that of greater Sydney.

    IMO, there is only one lesson one can learn from Singapore: Don’t try to copy policies from other jurisdictions unless the conditions (physical, institutional, social environments) are approximately identical.

    So, one may as well work from first principles (science, economics, history….).

  33. Ernestine Gross
    January 9th, 2017 at 10:32 | #33


    I am reasonably confident alternative means of traffic regulation (eg traffic officer vs traffic lights) are amenable to technical solutions, even if traffic officers look different in various countries and there is no requirement for standardising traffic islands and police officers the world over.

    Even for a lay person, like myself, it is not too difficult to think up large numbers of other cases that require special attention, eg some motorists having to rely on the behaviour of others to enter a road from a side-street during rush hours (more traffic lights? other pattern recognition?); live stock on roads, stock routes, icy roads (the latter has probably already been solved, given the major locations where the development takes place).

    So, potentially, the translation of the idea of automated vehicles into physical reality is a job creating one – a good thing irrespective of congestion problems, IMHO. Moreover, math and science people, including engineers, could again find high value added (good income) employment outside the finance sector – a good thing, IMHO. But, and I am sure you suspected a but, do all countries have the appropriate education policies to participate in this technological change by, for example, focusing on location specific problems and solutions? A policy aiming at 40% university graduates isn’t well focused, is it?

  34. drsmithy
    January 9th, 2017 at 10:40 | #34

    I must admit I struggle with reconciling the suggestion that while transport technology hasn’t changed since the ’60s, electric cars are somehow revolutionary. Electrification is just a simple drivetrain change. Far, far more significant improvements in vehicle technology have taken place over the last half century (just look at the decrease in vehicle-related deaths and injuries, which is substantially driven by technological improvements).

    “So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions”

    What’s your definition of “quite soon” ?

    Widespread autonomous vehicles outside of tiny restricted CBD areas are decades away (average vehicle age in Australia is ten years).
    Probably another couple of decades on top of that before they can properly handle basic off-road/rural scenarios, which means a non-trivial chunk of the population will not have AVs and must be catered for in the road system (ie: when farmer John comes to town).

    It always seems to me the impact of driverless vehicles are vastly overestimated. From a personal transport perspective, we’ve already had the functional equivalent of driverless cars in the form of taxis (and other types of hire cars – Uber, etc) almost as long as we’ve had cars, yet none of the revolution we are promised by essentially doing nothing more than substituting computers for taxi drivers has come about. Another suggestion that also seems prima facie ridiculous is that they will reduce congestion, even though the common usage case (AVs driving their owners to work, then returning home rather than parking in the city) doubles the number of trips required.

    People will buy driverless cars in the future for the same reason they buy cars today – status, suitability, practicality, convenience, personal preference, etc. Anyone with children will appreciate the significance of being able to leave all their related paraphernalia inside the vehicle most of the time.

    The most likely outcome of driverless vehicle technology in the forseeable future (say, out to 30-40 years) is the near complete disappearance of hire car drivers (taxi, Uber, et al) and truckies, and people using their commutes (/road trips) to play computer games and the banning of private vehicles in CBDs. The several decades it will take for autonomous vehicles to be able to handle the 99% of driving scenarios (rather than just, say, the 80% that encompass driving in a major city) means most vehicles will still have to have some sort of manual override capability to account for people venturing out into more remote areas (or just some weird driveways). Consequently, vehicle design isn’t likely to change markedly (mechanical steering wheels might be replaced by FBW, concealable joystick-style systems).

  35. drsmithy
    January 9th, 2017 at 10:45 | #35

    I forgot to add, the biggest issues are unlikely to be technological, but those of regulation, responsibility and critical mass. Most of the touted systemic advantages of AVs are only realised when they are a substantial majority of vehicles on the road, which is comfortably twenty years away.

  36. Ron E Joggles
    January 9th, 2017 at 11:17 | #36

    I’m surprised by the lack of concern (among commenters here) about:

    – The implications of the extraordinary level of organization, surveillance and control that will be necessary to bring this dream of safe, efficient transport to reality;

    – The terminology is misleading; vehicles could not be truly autonomous, as the network of driverless vehicles would of necessity be controlled collectively;

    – Referring to my previous comment @#17 above; when things go wrong, and they will, “a driverless B-double has to choose which little car to run over, and which to avoid”;

    – And @#15 above; “it’s part of the trend to ever-increasing disparity between the poverty of the ordinary working family, and the privilege of the professional classes. Goodbye to the revolutionary liberating mobility that the private family vehicle gave us for most of the previous century.”

  37. Jim Birch
    January 9th, 2017 at 13:37 | #37

    (The argument that computers aren’t up to it is totally ludicrous. Computers and software improve incrementally over time with no obvious limit. Humans have a different skill curve. As a driver I receive zero benefit from a driving failure in Osaka. Google’s self driving software adds it to their model, everywhere.)

    The interesting question to me is how much cheaper is a driverless car than taxis because that how fast the change will occur. I’d guess “a lot”.

    If you live in a small house in a big city owning a car is a not just a cost, but a nuisance. A lot of people would switch just to eliminate their parking hassle/costs. These big markets will drive the change that normalises robot cars. These people won’t want to own a car. Cars will be owned by fleet managers and they will be selected and ultimately designed for more functional reasons than status and identification.

    Once this is working at critical mass, there are a lot of other benefits: reduced congestion, getting dangerous people off the road, getting old people off the road, improved safety for ‘good” drivers, freedom to work and play when travelling, etc. It will be progressively harder to manually drive on a road, not a “right” to mobility. The idea of letting someone with a drink drive conviction or an accident history drive will be ridiculous when there’s a viable alternative. In the end game, no one trust themselves to drive or even know how to drive. Driving will be a job for experts, who are generally machines.

  38. John Quiggin
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:25 | #38


    “Far, far more significant improvements in vehicle technology have taken place over the last half century (just look at the decrease in vehicle-related deaths and injuries, which is substantially driven by technological improvements).”

    I don’t agree. I’d say that improvements in vehicle technology wouldn’t even make it into the top 5 factors behind the decline in road deaths behind

    * Compulsory seat belts
    * Random breath testing
    * Better roads
    * Improved treatment of road trauma
    * Better enforcement of speed limits

    I guess the top technical innovation was airbags, which had much less marginal impact than seatbelt laws, followed by ABS and then crumply car bodies

    I don’t disagree with you on timeframe. If you reread, my statement was “quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control.” For that to happen, I’d say 10 years will probably be enough. For the reasons you state, I expect the actual replacement process to take many more decades.

    I also agree that the the biggest issues are unlikely to be technological. In fact, the post was about one of those issues.

  39. john
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:26 | #39

    Number of deaths due to cars in the USA 2015.
    Over 35,000 this is a horrific figure.
    Any society that believes this is acceptable needs to reset its moral compass.
    Why is this acceptable?
    Because the motor vehicle has been very astutely marketed as an object that sets you free sets your status in society.
    In fact it is a simple transport device to get you from A to B.
    Until society is educated to the fact that this piece of metal is a killing machine I am afraid nothing will change.
    I honestly do feel we are in the age of the educated idiot, who does not know why he has to have this latest SUV with terrible safety features or what ever other dumb choice he/she makes.
    As to the health and social cost of the vehicle that is of no concern, well as advanced societies i feel this has to be looked at and a social cost and health cost should be built into the cost of ownership of that vehicle.
    Instead of society picking up the cost of the vehicle post sale why is not the cost built into the price?

  40. John Quiggin
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:31 | #40

    @Ron E Joggles

    You seem to have a misconception about the technology (or else I do). The driverless vehicles aren’t centrally controlled. Each one has its own independent navigation and hazard avoidance system. So, there’s no change in autonomy here, which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of other worries.

    As for your B-double scenario, how would the presence of a human driver change things? And, having been monstered by a B-double driver the other day for obeying the speed limit, I’d be happy to nominate at least one candidate for immediate replacement by a robot.

  41. john
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:37 | #41

    @John Quiggin
    Lets look at each part of the improvement.
    1 seat belts… This was fraught as too costly.
    2 Random breath tests granted good.
    3 Better roads hardly some have improved slowly
    4 Improved treatment of trauma granted hardly to do with the basic problem
    5 Better enforcement of speed limits this is the oldest furphy in the book and does not help at all showing the blue presence has a far higher effect it is a cop out ( no pun intended )

    In fact collapsible steering columns and air bags had the biggest effect plus the survival cabin which Mercedes Benz gave the world fee from the 1950’s.

  42. john
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:40 | #42

    Mercedes Benz gave the world free not fee from the 1950’s.

  43. Smith
    January 9th, 2017 at 14:52 | #43


    The US is an outlier by developed country standards, 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people per year. Australia is at 5.4. On a deaths per billion vehicle kilometres, we are better but not by as much (5.2, 7.1). Of course politics plays a part. In Tennessee, and maybe other states, motor cycle helmets are not compulsory – can’t have the government curtailing individual freedoms. This has led to people needing organ transplants to move to Tennessee, because of all the fresh road kill (assuming hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers still intact). So even a high road toll has its advantages.

  44. John Quiggin
    January 9th, 2017 at 15:02 | #44

    “1 seat belts… This was fraught as too costly.”

    Can you explain what you mean here?


    Yes, the US example shows that much improvement is due to non-tech factors, since they have the same cars as us, and have led the way in improvements like treatment of road trauma.

  45. Robert Banks
    January 9th, 2017 at 15:19 | #45

    A most interesting post, with so many issues arising, many of which it seems will be challenging humans and societies increasingly in the very near future – a couple that come to mind include:
    – how do we define the point at which the opportunity costs of having a human (or set of humans) doing something (in this case, driving ground-based vehicles) outweigh the benefits?
    – why do we accept so much cross-subsidisation of the pleasures of a few and the supposed flexibility of individual and individually-piloted vehicles? The total cost of car transport in anything larger than a modest city must be enormous.
    – how will the algorithms evolve and be regulated, or even evaluated? Will different car companies have different algorithms? Will they attempt to game the system, as they have with emissions?
    – why in general do we accept the externalities or opportunity costs of humans and their decisions as generously as we do? So many things that are infinitessimal risks and therefore costs in small societies with early stage technologies seem to become large in modern societies, and yet we still seem to talk about them generally as if we lived in small villages.
    Thanks John

  46. drsmithy
    January 9th, 2017 at 15:59 | #46

    @Jim Birch

    I think you might overestimate how much of the cost of a taxi ride is in the $10/hr or so the driver earns.

    The massive number of large cars (SUVs, commodores, etc) on the road in our cities suggests that (in)convenience is not an issue that bothers many people.

    As I said, in my view driverless cars aren’t going to deliver much to people that taxis don’t already and the same people who buy cars today rather than take taxis everywhere will buy driverless cars in the future rather than take taxis everywhere, for the same reasons (with the supposed added bonus their driverless car can be out for the other 20ish hours a day they don’t use it earning them some money, to highlight another expected use case for them I am fairly sceptical of).

  47. Nick
    January 9th, 2017 at 17:12 | #47

    JQ: “a technology that’s been digitised will inevitably improve to the point where it outperforms the analog competition on just about every dimension”

    If you’re comparing analogue watches and cameras to their digital counterparts – sure, no argument. But the best mechanical camera and lens systems aren’t even close to matching the dynamic range and muscle control of the human eye.

    Ditto for the human ear. The human auditory canal transmits the neural equivalent of >19,000 one-bit DSD streams – per ear. State of the art digital is orders of magnitude away from that kind of precision, let alone the processing and mixing of all that data which is carried out near instantaneously by the human brain. Dedicated hardware costing hundreds of thousands of dollars struggles to process and mix even a couple of channels of PDM-audio in real time.

    Note these are NP-type limitations. Moore’s Law will have to do more than simply get back on track to enable our digital tech to catch up with our inbuilt analogue tech.

    Yes – driverless car sensors wouldn’t be limited to cameras and microphones:


    But you still run into the real time performance limitations of weighted probability networks (AI). Again, NP issues. As much as I’d like to see all of this happen, I’m not convinced it’s inevitable.

    I’ll be impressed just to see a driverless metro bus or taxi network, speed limited to 40km/h, in the next 10-15 years, which has an accident record better than human bus or taxi drivers speed limited to the same…

  48. derrida derider
    January 9th, 2017 at 17:13 | #48

    I think widespread self driving cars will probably eventually come, but they’re further away than people think. The reason is that the challenge is not to make them about as safe as ones driven by licenced humans but to make them far safer than human-guided ones, which is what is needed before they’ll be accepted. Its because of our well-known incapacity to judge relative risks.

    A fatality in a human driven car is literally an everyday event, but the very rarity of fatalities in a self-driven car will make each one newsworthy. And salience rules.

    Aviation is the precedent here – more automation in commercial planes has lowered the fatality rate enormously, but the rare case of automation stuff ups (actually pretty well always the human-computer interface that’s gone wrong, not the computer itself) has paradoxically made regulatory authorities very reluctant to allow further automation such as completely self-flying planes, which are actually far easier to build than self-driving cars.

  49. January 9th, 2017 at 23:45 | #49

    @Charlene MacDonald
    “Computers have no judgement”. Which is why those stories of passenger planes landing on full autopilot at airports with level 3 ILS are mere urban legends.

  50. Ikonoclast
    January 10th, 2017 at 05:57 | #50

    “Are the manufacturers ready to make 10-20 times fewer vehicles?” – Ben.

    No, not under capitalism. We have seen how unready capitalists have been to abandon coal and coal power stations. They are equally unready to abandon highly inefficient automobiles as a mode of transport in cities.

    Established capital has a vested interest, a committed investment, in their current modes of production. They fight innovative capital and hold off changes as long as they can. The innovators do eventually win. For example, solar power is slowly at first, but exponentially, winning over coal power stations. However, in the interim, before the innovators win, we are subjected to twenty years (about) of vested capital interests substantially holding progress back, bribing political parties, influencing policy and so on.

    In the scheme of things, with the need for prompt action to avoid limits to growth problems, environmental problems, climate problems etc. these are twenty year delays we cannot afford.

    The capitalist system takes too long to react to knowledge in impact science, if it reacts at all. It even takes too long to react to knowledge in production science as I illustrated above.

  51. Jim Birch
    January 10th, 2017 at 11:08 | #51

    @derrida derider
    I doubt that safety will be a big factor in the move to driverless vehicles. Safety is generally imposed top-down by the organisations that bear the costs because individuals don’t think very clearly about small risks. There might be a safety-inspired push to get the last hold-outs off the road towards the end as road death becomes denormalised.

    I imagine cost and amenity will be the drivers of change. Many people like driving but we might find other things to do during commute time. We haven’t yet had anyone killed while having sex in a driverless car but that will come.

    Which brings me back to one of JQ’s original post questions which as usual everyone ignores. I think the main change to the physical design of the car will be more specific purposed design. At present, a typical city car needs to be capable of commuting, small goods transport, and occasional trip to the sticks with varying passenger numbers for each trip. In a fleet hire situation you might choose the vehicle type for the task as you do with a hire car. Self driving cars will also free up general in-car behaviour due to the privacy factor and having no driver to distract. Everyone can be drunk. There would be no limit on use of mobile phones or other connected communications. I can imagine a lot of commuters might use the time to clear phone calls (and eat breakfast?) before getting to the office. It is interesting that while most jurisdictions allow hand-free phone use in cars the evidence says this is minimally safer than holding a phone.

  52. Ronald Brakels
    January 10th, 2017 at 11:26 | #52

    I don’t see why there would be any major legal issues with self driving cars. If my car rolls down a hill with no one in it and damages something, I get blamed even though I wasn’t driving at the time. Same if my horse gets frightened by a particularly dangerous plastic bag and bowls someone over. I am responsible whether I was in charge of my totally autonomous horse at that time or not. It seems to me the main issues have been dealt with long ago.

    Also, human beings don’t solve trolley problems when they are about to hit people, so I don’t see why we would expect an autonomous car to. Human beings rely on simple heuristics when about to have an accident. Autonomous cars will do the same, except they’ll do it less often and they’ll do it better. (If they didn’t, we would be unlikely to allow them on the roads.)

  53. Ron E Joggles
    January 10th, 2017 at 12:20 | #53

    @John Quiggin
    I imagine driverless vehicles responding to their immediate environment via cameras and other sensors, reacting to the movement of other vehicles and to the road infrastructure, and this may be adequate much of the time (they’d have GPS too of course), but if the network is going to be maximally safe and efficient, surely some form of collective control would be inevitable, so that traffic flow could respond to conditions a long way further ahead (rain, ice, flooding, crashes, technological glitches etc.

    But I could be wrong – perhaps vehicles could respond autonomously, but even then they would have to have a network of some kind (in addition to GPS) in order to have the necessary information to react to conditions ahead.

    Re the B-double scenario – a human driver will presumably put his own survival ahead of that of other people. I’m wondering about the legal aspects of having an algorithm choose which passenger vehicle to collide with. And I’d be interested to hear from a software engineer how they’d deal with this conundrum.

    But my main concern is the social implications. The dazzling “gee-whizzery” of driverless cars, flying cars etc too often blinds us to the possibility of negative social impacts.

    As far back as the early 60s we were hearing that mechanization and automation would free us of menial tasks and liberate citizens to devote more energy to worthy pursuits (education, the liberal arts, sport, conservation, travel), and of course even the very poor can now have all the electronic entertainments they want and usually a family car.

    But most of the benefits of mechanization have gone to make the wealthy wealthier, while unemployment is stubbornly high, and the coming revolution in automation and robotics will only make things worse, as the gulf between the poor and the rich deepens.

    Does our society have the wit and the will to ensure that the distribution of wealth is fair, that the people who the economy has no use for are able to expect a decent standard of living? Will they be free of the condemnation as bludgers, used even now to justify the meagre allowances they receive?

    I fear a Blade Runner future, with technological luxuries like driverless cars limited to wealthy elites in walled enclaves, while the masses subsist in crowded ghettos and have access only to poorly maintained public transport.

  54. rdb
    January 10th, 2017 at 12:28 | #54

    Phil Koopman’s Better Embedded System SW blog:tagged: self-driving cars
    But, while self-driving cars promise improved safety, some critical issues must be addressed to ensure they are at least as safe as human-driven cars and, hopefully, even safer.

    Machine learning is the secret sauce for the recent success of self-driving cars and many other amazing computer capabilities. With machine learning, the computer isn’t programmed by humans to follow a fixed recipe as it was in traditional systems. Rather, the computer in effect teaches itself how to distinguish objects such as a bush from a person about to cross a street by learning from example pictures that label bushes and people.

    Statistically speaking, even 100 million miles of driving is not enough to show that these cars are even as safe as an average human driver. The Department of Transportation should address this fundamental problem head on and require rigorous evidence that machine-learning results are sufficiently safe and robust.

    A key element of ensuring safety in machinery, except for cars, is independence between the designers and the folks who ensure safety. In airplanes, trains, medical devices and even UL-listed appliances, ensuring safety requires an independent examination of software design. This helps keep things safe even when management feels pressure to ship a product before it’s really ready.

    Probably the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) would make significant research in Australia difficult.

    Would inroads into controlling heavy mining/construction machinery be the likely near term usage?

  55. John Quiggin
    January 10th, 2017 at 12:46 | #55

    “Statistically speaking, even 100 million miles of driving is not enough to show that these cars are even as safe as an average human driver.”

    I think this is a mistake. It’s true that, in the US, the current death rate is just over 1 per 100 million miles, so, looking at deaths alone, it would be impossible to make a statistically reliable determination. But the crash rate is 185 and the injury rate is 74. That’s enough to make a highly reliable comparison.

    Google’s record so far is 1 minor crash (attributed to machine error) in 1 million miles, which would be incredibly unlikely if the true average rate were over 100.



  56. rdb
    January 10th, 2017 at 14:30 | #56

    See How Safe Is The Tesla Autopilot? where Koopman links to an MTBF calculator.

    Looking at it another way, given the current data (1 mishap in 130 million miles), this tool: http://reliabilityanalyticstoolkit.appspot.com/field_mtbf_calculator tells us that Tesla has only demonstrated an MTBF of 27.4M miles or better at 95% confidence at this point, which is less than a third of the way to break-even with a human.
    (Please note, I did NOT say that they are only a third as safe as a human. What I am saying is that the data available only supports a claim of about 29.1% as good. Beyond that, the jury is still out.)

  57. Dave
    January 10th, 2017 at 15:15 | #57

    A minor observation re technology. I suggest self-driving cars will have at least 2 driving modes. One for for suburban where it will act singularly and a swarm mode for high volume freeway traffic. The latter probably not centrally controlled rather mimicking schools of fish or birds acting in concert. The militaries are working on these technologies for drones so there is a lot of money being thrown at making it work. I could see the latter having a major affect on congestion.

    Social / economic is more interesting. If you don’t drive, will you still see it as yours or more like a bus where communal use is the norm. Will they remain status symbols. Taxi driving will evaporate taking out one of the starter jobs for migrants. Probably strife from the Shooter & Fisher types defending their rights especially if self-driving proves much safer and Road Safety experts start pushing to ban human drivers.

  58. drsmithy
    January 10th, 2017 at 15:59 | #58

    @Ron E Joggles

    Small scale co-ordinated (or “collective”) action does not require or imply centralised control.

  59. Ron E Joggles
    January 10th, 2017 at 19:41 | #59

    Mission creep! A level of interconnectivity will be irresistible. Enhanced safety may be touted as justification for central control in an emergency, and as the system evolves may be used more routinely. I realize that this is an extreme scenario, but looking ahead 100 years, who knows, maybe not so unrealistic. And I think there is a tendency to be seduced by the exciting new technology and to consequently neglect social factors.

  60. D
    January 11th, 2017 at 01:25 | #60

    Is there any override ability for the human occupants?

    If not, then that’s scary.

    If so, then the whole thing is a stupid waste – especially of time.

    Free public transport would be far better (coupled with an efficient car-pooling/hire scheme for specialised trips like going outback etc.), and it is achievable – literally – today.

  61. numerobis
    January 11th, 2017 at 02:57 | #61

    @Ron E Joggles : we have essentially always had centralized control in driving, what’s the issue?

    My freedom to drive down the sidewalk has been impinged upon by law, and my freedom to drive across my neighbors’ properties is barred by the central city planners’ decision not to put a road there (and my neighbours’ decision to place buildings).

    We listen to the government weather reports and corporate media traffic reports.

    We read road signs placed by the government.

  62. numerobis
    January 11th, 2017 at 03:18 | #62

    @D : human occupant overrides to immobilize the car, almost certainly. Overrides to take a different path, that already exists. I don’t see how those invalidate anything — you just need an extra button for the kill switch.

    The first autonomous cars had steering wheels and pedals, but such fine-grained control won’t be necessary for much longer.

    Personally I don’t miss setting the fuel/air mixture. Manually controlling my gear ratio isn’t that important. Manually pumping my brakes in slippery conditions is passé, thank goodness. I never had the opportunity to yank a chain or turn a crank to start my car. All these tasks have been automated over time.

  63. drsmithy
    January 11th, 2017 at 08:13 | #63

    @Ron E Joggles

    I don’t think there’s any mission creep. Every long-term vision of autonomous cars I’ve ever read about has involved the vehicles interacting with each other over short distances to exchange basic information (“hey guys, I need to take an exit on the left in 4.3km, can you please open up a gap for me in 4.1km”, “a cow is wandering around on the side of the road 500m ahead, everybody slow down”, etc).

    That is a far cry from a single central computer telling every individual vehicle what to do, which is what you seem to be envisaging.

    100 years down the track is far too long to make anything other than wildly speculative suggestions, and if the urge to centrally control every vehicle comes, it won’t be because of the lure of shiny technology, it’ll be because of the lure of authoritarianism (much like people today who want to put a GPS tracker in every car).

  64. drsmithy
    January 11th, 2017 at 08:15 | #64


    Making public transport free is unlikely to make people who don’t use it today for reasons other than cost (most, since it’s already cheaper than driving if that’s the only metric you use) change their minds.

    Autonomous cars will require manual overrides for many decades. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be quite capable of completely automatically handling the majority of driving scenarios without puny humans taking over.

  65. Tim Macknay
    January 11th, 2017 at 10:45 | #65

    @Ronald Brakels
    If automated/driverless vehicles become the predominant form of road transport, this will result in a major shift in the regulation of road safety, from the present situation in which the principal legal responsibility for road safety rests with drivers, to a situation in which primary responsibility will rest with vehicle manufacturers and maintenance service providers. This change could potentially occur without any legislative developments since, as you suggest, no new legal concepts need to be developed. I’d surmise, though, that the scope of the potential change would lead to reassessment of the existing legal regime.

  66. John Quiggin
    January 11th, 2017 at 16:19 | #66


    To restate my point, the problem is that looking only at fatal crashes throws away 99 per cent of the data. It makes much more sense to look at all crashes or all crashes causing injury. The evidence from Google is overwhelming.

  67. Ronald Brakels
    January 12th, 2017 at 08:58 | #67

    I suppose there might have to be one or two modifications to the law. After all, it would be a drag if we had to wait until our self-driving cars were 17 before they were old enough to get a license. And the procedure for the random breath testing of drivers might need to be modified.

  68. derrida derider
    January 12th, 2017 at 11:00 | #68

    “if the urge to centrally control every vehicle comes, it won’t be because of the lure of shiny technology, it’ll be because of the lure of authoritarianism” – dr smithy @63

    Of course – but then I know which lure is the strongest one. Count on it, the powers that be will eventually have all vehicles centrally controlled. It’s a further move towards “that which is not compulsory is forbidden”.

  69. rdb
    January 12th, 2017 at 12:56 | #69

    I don’t have the statistical, machine-learning or software engineering chops to argue this.
    A reference from Koopman’s Response to Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: accelerating the next revolution in roadway safety, September 2016

    Kalra, Nidhi; Paddock, Susan M. (2016) Driving to Safety How Many Miles of Driving Would It Take to Demonstrate Autonomous Vehicle Reliability? RAND doi:10.7249/RR1478

  70. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2017 at 14:13 | #70

    And let’s not forget all the stuff sent electronically which used to be sent physically. That’s transport too: from mail to music and movies to medical imaging and so on, a lot carrying and couriering has now been made obsolete.

  71. John Quiggin
    January 12th, 2017 at 14:37 | #71


    I read the Rand report by Kalra and Paddock, and the reporting of results is highly selective, making the error I suggested and then some. If you go to the linked PDF, and look at Figure 3, you’ll find that, focusing on crashes rather than fatalities, and assuming that self-driving cars are 90 per cent better than humans, it would only take 100 000 miles to prove superiority with 90 per cent confidence. Looking at the actual Google data (1 at-fault crash in a million miles compared to over 100 for humans), that’s very conservative.

    I will write to the authors and see what they have to say.

  72. harley
    January 12th, 2017 at 22:38 | #72

    Auto drive vehicles should drive down the cost of public transport. They should be able to manage spacing between services far better than human drivers can. I’d see first implementation being on our rail ( heavy and light) networks as many of the variables can be eliminated. No overtime rates, we can run public transport 24/7 with reduced overheads

    I wouldn’t want to own a vehicle, an auto drive version of go get would let me call for a car to pick me up, deliver me to wherever and pick up from near my drop off point. It could find its own recharge point in between passengers. I’d pay more for the externalities that are greater than public transport.

    Freight shipping with smart vehicles should be a doddle, avoiding peak congestion both on the roads and at loading and unloading points.

  73. harley
    January 12th, 2017 at 22:40 | #73

    Will our auto drive vehicles automatically take themselves to the mechanics/ service centres for maintenance and updates?

  74. James Wimberley
    January 13th, 2017 at 00:32 | #74

    @John Quiggin
    Tesla have built up a very much larger mileage with Autopilot than Google has with its more measured approach. Musk took a hair-raising chance, making a beta system operational on a large scale and relying on feedback to improve it quickly. He got away with it, with only one reported fatal crash (with an irresponsible dead driver who could reasonably be blamed). Autopilot is a partial system, unlike Google’s. But it is heading rapidly to the same place.

    Ikonoclast has the true believer’s faith in the ability of greedy capitalists to escape Prisoners’ Dilemmas by coordination. If the car makers were capable of this, they would have killed self-driving technology. As they all know, self-driving plus ridesharing will probably slash the number of cars needed by an order of magnitude. Instead, they are defecting from the optimum collective strategy and investing heavily. Only a few will survive.

  75. Ikonoclast
    January 13th, 2017 at 06:33 | #75

    @James Wimberley

    The established capitalists have delayed electric cars and delayed the phase out of coal, by a couple a decades, at least, in each case. They don’t appear to have delayed self-driving technology yet so far as I can tell. This is consistent with the argument I advanced above. Established capital will delay innovative capital’s efforts as long as it can. Eventually, however some innovators become big enough (witness Google and Tesla) to challenge established capital. They do it via new fields of endeavour (mostly) where established capital is not established. Google and Tesla got under the radar of the traditional car makers.

    To sum up, established capital usually can’t kill innovation where it threatens established methods of manufacture and profit but it can delay it. In the end game, those that can do so “defect” and try to survive. Cartel behavior eventually disintegrates under a new challenge of intense competition from a new innovative corporation. With corporations at the mature stage, this is a battle of behemoths, not a battle of tiny, agile entrepreneurs. (Google and Tesla ceased to be the latter some time ago.) The battle of behemoths plays out over decades not years.

    The issue here is that corporate capital (as a system of both “carteling” and competing corporations) probably exhibits characteristics of punctuated equilibrium. There will be periods of relative stasis in some fields at the macro level. The stubborn persistence with internal combustion autos is an example. Finally, new technologies break through and challenge. But the transition is too late from the point of view of saving us from serious environmental consequences.

    Footnote: Where established corporations take up innovations is at the level where it reduces their costs of manufacture. Where they do not take it up is where it would obsolete much of their manufacturing chain (and products) and strand their investment. In that scenario they fight innovation.

  76. Ron E Joggles
    January 14th, 2017 at 10:33 | #76

    derrida derider :
    “Count on it, the powers that be will eventually have all vehicles centrally controlled. It’s a further move towards “that which is not compulsory is forbidden”.


    I wrote at #59, “And I think there is a tendency to be seduced by the exciting new technology and to consequently neglect social factors.”

    Almost every other commenter here discusses only the technical detail, without consideration of the social impacts of ever more pervasive interconnectivity, and the inescapable potential for surveillance, influence and ultimately, control.

  77. Ronald Brakels
    January 14th, 2017 at 11:34 | #77

    My god! Centrally controlled autonomous cars! Do you realize what this means? To control literally millions of vehicles centrally, Australia would actually have to have working, reliable, high speed internet!

    I am so stoked!

    NBN via a boot stomping on a human face forever!

  78. derrida derider
    January 14th, 2017 at 12:33 | #78

    Heh – Ronald wins the internetz for today.

  79. John Quiggin
    January 15th, 2017 at 12:12 | #79

    @Ron E Joggles

    I’m all for looking at the social factors, but I’m still at a loss to work out what your concern is. Is there anything that could be done with the (not currently feasible) idea of remotely controlling autonomous cars that isn’t already being done for commercial drivers, much more cheaply, with GPS tracking. Drivers can be ordered to follow travel plans and punished for deviations.


    Relative to either of these, I’m much more concerned at the likelihood that this is already happening to the general public, surreptitiously, using mobile phones as the tracking device.

    And, of course, it’s not as though driving has ever had an assumption of privacy – it’s an easily observable activity, undertaken in public.

  80. Ronald Brakels
    January 15th, 2017 at 14:25 | #80

    Cars won’t be centrally controlled, because as any 14 year old can tell you, lag gets you killed. And then after you’re killed you get a heap of American accented racist and sexist verbal abuse. I always assumed the verbal abusers were also 14, but as it turns out, they were apparently old enough to vote.

    Cars won’t be centrally controlled, but if the technology did work that way I would be fine with it as long as it saved lives.

    What would worry me is if the government started doing things that served no practical purpose but only had evil applications. For example, if they started building concentration camps in remote areas that Jews, Gypsies, or other groups that could be classified as “enemies of the state” or “un-Australian” could be imprisoned in without trial. If they blocked media access to these camps. If they built up a workforce of camp guards and administrators who could be relied upon to perform inhumane actions when told to by those in power. If they inflicted physical harm on children, pregnant women, the sick, the elderly and other groups that society normally regards as requiring special protection and got away with it.

    That’s what would get me worried.

  81. totaram
    January 15th, 2017 at 16:05 | #81

    @Ronald Brakels
    I take it you are actually quite worried already.

  82. Ronald Brakels
    January 15th, 2017 at 20:50 | #82


  83. Ronald Brakels
    January 19th, 2017 at 20:36 | #83

    On the subject of:

    * what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;

    Well, the elimination of controls means there is space for an extra seat in the front. This means self driving taxis of similar interior size to current ones could seat 6 passengers instead of 4.

    Of course, self driving cars could be made narrower than current ones so more can fit side to side on the roads. Once human driving is eliminated permanent lanes won’t be necessary.

    Self driving cars will electric. Batteries can go in the floor to give a low center of gravity and an electric motor can go in each wheel. This gives a lot of freedom with what goes on top of the “skateboard”.

    There might be wide variation in car size. As most taxi trips consist of ferrying on passenger, perhaps the majority of vehicles will be single seat self driving taxis. Or maybe private citizens will feel the need to express themselves with giant land yachts. (Donald Trumps preserved head will have its own self-driving continental siege machine that goes by the name “Mark 4”.)

    One development we might see very soon is external airbags. Self driving cars would (hopefully) be able to deploy them just before impact.

  84. Stockingrate
    January 19th, 2017 at 21:45 | #84

    Road space will be the scarce resource.

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