Self-driving cars: Have we really thought this through? -

Self-driving cars: Have we really thought this through?

The shortcomings of super-car technology. (For instance, its inability to detect pedestrians)


Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

So it looks as though this whole “self-driving car” thing is for real. Nissan says it will deliver one to market within seven years—despite the many drivers who demonstrate every day that they don’t need some fancy autonomous vehicle in order to completely zone out behind the wheel. I’m doing it right now while I type this column. [Also takes bite of hamburger.]

Before I go any further, this must be noted for the record: Somewhere, at some time along the way, someone decided that it was more important to design a self-driving car than a flying car. This person should be forcibly restrained and waterboarded with a pail of my tears. Flying cars are the only reason I yearned to become a grown-up, and without them adult life has been a pungent morass of soul-consuming misery. Thanks for nothing, anonymous dream-crusher.

Anyway, I’m skeptical about the robocar. Sure, automakers like Nissan boast of working out the kinks by collaborating with researchers at leading universities. This sounds great until you read the following quote from a Japanese professor who’s considered a pioneer in the field: “It is hard or almost impossible to detect pedestrians, especially children and cyclists, and to forecast their behaviours.” Awesome! So we’ve totally nailed this super-car technology except for the part about not driving directly into people. I’ll take two!

Human drivers have—and will always have—an advantage over lasers and sensors. Through experience, we can sense when a pedestrian is about to dart into traffic. We see it in their eyes and their body language. And that allows us to react in the proper way—by laying on the horn and shouting out the window, “Keep it on the curb, dumb-ass!”

Consider some of the other shortcomings of the self-driving car:

  • Robbed of the ability to get behind the wheel and rev the engine in a needlessly aggressive fashion, how exactly are the young men of the future supposed to persuade young women to desire them? Through genial conversation and disarming romantic gestures? What is this, the Renaissance??
  • The muscle cars of yore had tough names like Cobra and Mustang—monikers that suggested speed, power, danger. Are people really going to line up to buy the Nissan Dawdle?
  • The intricate internal software may leave your car vulnerable to hackers who could override your vehicle’s systems and program it to take you somewhere horrible, like Burger King or Saskatoon.
  • One of the great joys of life is witnessing a road-rage incident between two hotheads. It’s just not going to be the same when it’s an exchange between tech-laden automobiles:

Nissan Dawdle: “101101010101111!”

Lexus Tedium: “01010101#%@*01110!!!!”

There’s a bigger issue, though: Have we really thought this through?

Today’s humans represent the most impatient incarnation of our species ever. We get uppity when it takes more than 0.46 seconds to download that video of a bulldog on a trampoline. And we’re going to get jazzed about iCars that drive at the speed limit and come to a complete stop at each and every four-way? I predict some people will sit back and let their shiny new 2025 Mercedes Blah putter away for as long as two minutes before grabbing the wheel, stepping on the gas and hollering, “This is how you drive, Grandma Roboto!”

And oh, by the way, let’s not forget: driving is fun. It’s about more than getting there—it’s about calculating the quickest route, making the slickest pass, finding the best parking spot. There’s a thrill in speeding into a corner, hitting the apex just right, sliding through the apex because there was black ice on the road, spinning the wheel madly while screaming, “No! Sweet Jesus, nooooooo!” and correcting it just in time to avoid death by plummeting.

Many questions about the autonomous car have yet to be answered. Will we be able to “drive” drunk if we’re not really driving? Will it be okay to make out while in motion? Can Rob Ford send it on its own to pick up a “cannelloni” on Dixon Road?

But the biggest question is: do we really need another activity that we experience passively? Take a good look at us—do we want to off-load yet another activity so we can free up more time to stare into screens? And do any of us—any of us—yearn to see a movie car chase that features fuel-efficient acceleration and properly signalled turns?

Follow Scott Feschuk on Twitter @scottfeschuk


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Self-driving cars: Have we really thought this through?

  1. What a stupid write up. Grow up editor. Self driving cars are going to change
    the world stop looking for every possible piece if evidence to put them down.
    The GPS technology in googles version is second to none
    and can pick up any pedestrian in real time.

    Self driving cars will allow children and old people who don’t have drivers licences
    to get around on their own as well as those who have lost
    their licence due to drink driving or speeding.

    Imagine how much this would improve family life if children
    where able to own their very own vehicle to get to and from
    primary school!

    The biggest drain on daily family life is dropping the dam kids
    and picking them up.

    • Imagine how much this would improve family life if children
      where able to own their very own vehicle to get to and from
      primary school!

      Can’t imagine what could go wrong with that.

      • On second thought, I see now that you were being sarcastic. Very sarcastic.

        Self driving cars will allow children and old people who don’t have drivers licences to get around on their own as well as those who have lost
        their licence due to drink driving or speeding.

        Good one. Let me add some more. Self driving cars will eliminate the concern over drunk driving. Just let the car drive you home and drink all you want! No more concern about inexperienced drivers. The car is driving, not them. Let them go wherever they want. Speeding? Just program the car not to speed. GPS can detect the speed limit and adjust accordingly. Icy conditions? The GPS can feed in weather conditions! Other aggressive or obnoxious drivers? The car’s computer can send a middle finger image to appear on the screen of the offending vehicle!

    • Is this serious?

    • Steve… even a computer would recognize satire when it reads it. BTW… “The biggest drain on family life is dropping the dam (sic) kids…” really? The biggest drain on family life is people having kids who have no business doing so. Stay single buddy.

  2. Steve:
    I sincerely hope that entire response was sarcasm, otherwise you need to be sterilized immediately.

  3. Just ask experienced pilots what the automated features of modern aircraft have done to the skills (or lack thereof) of newer pilots. The plane that was landed on the river in NYC was lucky to be piloted by a guy who had been flying since the late 60s and had combat experience. Many pilots admitted they could not have brought that plane down like that.
    Before someone accuses me of being “anti-technology”, this dulling effect on pilot skills has been borne out by studies, and airlines and transport regulators have acknowledged this. No question technology has lead to huge increases in air safety, but as always, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • Flying cars aside, this is apples and oranges.

      Once this technology truly arrives there will be no human drivers outside of the race tracks. No need for them.

      And as some of the drivers I encountered on my commute this morning prove every day, not every human should be driving. A better analogy would be the application another technology: the horse drawn buggy or wagon.

      Before the wagon, the best way to travel long distances was on horseback. Now while nearly everyone can learn to ride a horse to some degree, some people would be better off staying on their own two feet. And since we invented a better, more efficient, more comfortable way to travel our horse riding skills have gone to hell. But do we really miss them?

      But it should be all or nothing. No phased in approach. Don’t implement it widely until the cars truly can drive themselves in all situations. As you point out it will otherwise make drivers lazy and their “skills” might erode. That said, robotic cars can already parallel park so that’s encrouaging!

  4. “Flying cars are the only reason I yearned to become a grown-up, and without them adult life has been a pungent morass of soul-consuming misery.”

    YOU TOO? It’s like you just looked into my soul.

  5. Beyond the humor, Scott’s got a good point about being able to recognize pedestrian intent. That generally involves reading the person’s face, and in particular, the eyes.

    However, as high-def camera technology and facial recognition technology become more ubiquitous and cheaper, I think even that’s a hurdle that the automatic car will eventually cross.

    The more difficult hurdle for a self-driving car is the other problem Scott pointed out. We’re damned impatient. Most people know of a road around their neighborhood where the posted speed limit is actually far below what people generally drive, and drive safely. Cars adhering rigidly to the legal speed limit instead of the safe speed limit will wind up with people simply shutting off the auto-drive and taking over.

  6. Wait, wait, wait … the real question is: If the car is so smart it can drive by itself to my workplace, why the hell can’t it just stay there and do the job so I can stay home?

  7. Self-driving cars are fine except for all of the unexpected things that can happen. Humans can pick up on these and (often) react appropriately. Can a computer?

    Pedestrians and bikes are an example of this. What about conditions where vision (cameras) may be obscured? What about an object that may be coming from a highly irregular angle, like something falling from above? How about recognizing and making some prejudgements of other cars and drivers based on the car style, their driving style, and what you can even see of them through their windows? You can often spot the guy who is likely to cut you off or swerve lanes, or not check their mirrors before they do it.

    • Artificial intelligence will be able to read the persons heartbeat, nevousness and eye movements from far away. the cameras and technology will be there and will only get better. the car will react to conditions not even dreamt of by humans.

      • Which could have unintended (and very bad) consequences.

      • As data inputs increase, the complexity of data analysis and identification of appropriate response increases exponentially.

        If robocars are to work reliably and safely, they must be given simple tasks.

        Driving on a highway, for example, is a *relatively* simple task. The range of unexpected events ( sudden changes in the trajectory and / or velocity of large objects ) is much smaller than it is in the navigation of residential streets where the set of unexpected events (bicycles, children, puppies, stalled wheelchairs…) is much larger.

        In this more dense context, the data analysis and response identification is dependent on much deeper and more complex searches than on the highway. This will require much more processing time in a context in which speedy reaction time has an even higher priority.

        What does heartbeat, nervousness, eye movement mean? Exactly and in every case? A reaction that to a human is immediate and instinctive, will to a computer present the same challenge as a chess move.

        Accountability is an issue. it is improbable that we could reach a binding no-changes contract that would assign to robo-car manufacturers, the same responsibility that human drivers assume every time one of us gets behind the wheel. Yet surely we require a clearly defined accountability for road safety.

        In a corporate world this just ain’t gonna happen. Is Google going to sign on to paying damages for every accident involving a robo car? Even two robo cars in collision?

        Arguments for the robo car typically envision a controlled context similar to a railroad. The notion of dedicated pathways is essential. Every car is equipped with sensors and communication devices that tie them into a network of information. Robo cars can safely operate only within a robo car system with a precisely controlled context.

        • Unfortunately, the data suggests that self-driving cars are already much safer than humans. Google’s cars have never had an accident while automated, and that’s while driving in streets full of non-automated, hard to predict, people. Highway, suburb, and city. It’s true that automated vehicles have issues in snow, but that will soon be overcome.

          It’s pretty clear that self-driving cars will be much safer than normal ones. The problem is I love driving, I actually enjoy long car trips. The only time I’d ever want a self-driving car is to take me home from the bar… That makes this pretty much the only technological innovation I’m not looking forward to.

          • Have you guys all watched the movie Idiocracy? I think you should.

  8. While a humorous read, if its meant to be even a partially serious piece you need to do more research. Absolutely machines break and computers fail. Humans do so at orders of magnitude GREATER rates. Are they or will they be perfect, of course not but an average of 120 people die every day in car accidents and the vast a majority are user error (principally inattention).

    Also so many of your premises are wrong. The assumption is these vehicles would have not only extensive internal nav sensors but also be communicating constantly with other vehicles (V2V) and external sensors/resources (V2E). So it senses a cars breaking a 1/4 mile ahed before you even see them, it senses exact speed and does a seamless merge or move-around, it knows terrain and weather changes ahead (and notices those behind whats coming for them) and so on.

    All evidence is self-driving cars will save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, significantly reduce injury when their are accidents, will save significant amounts of fule, allow for much greater utilization fo existing roads and on. Reduce insurance premiums (fewer accidents means less insurance loss cost).

    There are lots of real-hands on experience going on here as we speak. As one interesting example check out the car platooning demonstrations now in planning as part of Europse SATRE network being developed –

    In addition to safety, cost and efficiency imagine all the people who would benefit from a robo-taxi type service where via your phone you summon a car in minutes, takes you where you want, drops you off and your done with it – especially for those not able to drive; young, old, infirm or simply incapable. Or like me would love to have the time to do other things – I would love an robot chauffeured car service – sign me up. Point-to-point with no parking hassle, use travel time to read/work, don’t have to own or maintain a car, etc.

  9. Hey, what’s so wrong with Saskatoon? And if I ever wanted a robocar, it would be driving across the prairies.

  10. Compounded hell: A Burger King IN Saskatoon — OH, the horror. The horror!

  11. I thought this article was a great mockery of the robocar idea. I agree that we are too quick to embrace a very foolish idea.

    • you must be over 40 years old.

      maybe you would have been the same person who thought going from horse to car was foolish.

      • You must be under 30. I used to believe that technology would solve every problem, and that those suspicious of it were just foolish old codgers. Then I grew up. Skepticism is your friend. Prudence is the hallmark of adulthood. Learn to embrace both.

        • Agreed. But your skepticism is over ripe on this one. Prudence will allow this idea to properly ripen, but it’s coming. It’s us old codgers that need to get used to the idea.

      • I didn’t then. I do now.

  12. you have a point. about safety. but as time goes on these kinks will get fixed. the only way to get this worked out is to forge ahead. if we don’t do it it we will never get anywhere. People thought it was crazy to have cars on the road vs a horse. People thought it was nuts to go that fast and rely on brakes and a powerful engine.

    we will end up killing quite a few people but looking at the big picture i think we will be saving hundreds of thousands of lives compared to a few that get killed in the process. sounds weird but it is true,

    We are talking about getting rid those statistics killed by those who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. and speed demons. the courts can order these people to not be able to drive. they must use some code or some type of authorization to be able to control a car. this will be very good.

    it takes time. it will work.

  13. So like, Scott is being Scott (i.e. funny), but the article does invite serious thought, and I can’t believe no one here brings up the question that perplexes me. How well can this thing drive out of a snow skid, be aware for black ice, handle slushy conditions or some hard packed ice? Hey, I admit, lots of drivers can’t handle that stuff, but with experience we learned. Will a car know how to adjust for conditions? In heavy snow, what can it do?

    IMHO, I think we are a long way away from truly self driving cars, except for maybe highway driving in non-severe conditions. At best, an auto-pilot for a while at “cruising altitude”. Care won’t be driving us around our neighborhood, in and out of our driveways, or to be trusted when the road conditions are nasty. And for us not introduced to it as kids, it will be scary as well hit “auto-pilot” even on the highway just so we can surf our iPhone!

    • I love driving so I was secretely hoping for there would not to be an answer to your question. I did a quick Google search but couldn’t find anything out there. My driving skills are still relevant! Hurray!
      However, if anyone does have any information, I am kind of curious about this issue as well.

  14. Wow Steve – “The biggest drain on daily family life is dropping the **DAM* kids and picking them up” — you sound like a craptastic parent…. and I bet the biggest drain on your kids daily life is feeling like such a massive drain to their parent.

    Self driving cars are for lazy people. Seniors and kids DESERVE and have every RIGHT to have caring and/or qualified caregiver humans to help them… lord help you when your a senior… think your draining time consuming kids will help your old A** into your self driving car??

  15. The biggest traffic problem we have, and the one that poses the most danger to human lives, is human drivers.
    The biggest problem lies not in our bad habits, slower reaction times or tendecy to speed and do our taxes while driving but in the entitlement we feel to personal transportation. And I’m as guilty as anyone. They will take my personal automobile keys from my cold dead hands.
    The fact is that traffic would be way more efficient, faster, safer, more economical and more environmentally friendly if we took away the drivers. Computer controlled cars could drive faster, having a much faster reaction time than their human controlled brethren and being in communication through networks with every other car on the road they’d know when to brake before the need to brake even arises. So they could drive faster and follow the car in front much more closely and much more safely.
    Are we ready yet. Nope. Is the idea exciting? Yes. Is it coming? You’d better beleive it.