4 airplane crashes each week is safe enough for Tim Lee

Tim Lee has had a series on automatic driving technology, that’s interesting, in that it’s one of those potential mash-ups of industrial age technology with computer controls that just may be possible in the 10 to 15 year time horizon.  But he sets his sights abysmally low here:

Three principles should govern the regulation of self-driving cars. First, it’s important to ensure that regulation be a complement to, rather than a substitute for, liability for accidents. Private firms will always have more information than government regulators about the safety of their products, and so the primary mechanism for ensuring car safety will always be manufacturers’ desires to avoid liability. Tort law gives carmakers an important, independent incentive to make safer cars. So while there may be good arguments for limiting liability, it would be a mistake to excuse regulated auto manufacturers from tort liability entirely.

Second, regulators should let industry take the lead in developing the basic software architecture of self-driving technologies. The last couple of decades have given us many examples of high-tech industries converging on well-designed technical standards. It should be sufficient for regulators to examine these standards after they have been developed, rather than trying to impose government-designed standards on the industry.

Finally, regulators need to bear in mind that too much regulation can be just as dangerous as too little. If self-driving cars will save lives, then delaying their introduction can kill just as many people as approving a dangerous car can. Therefore, it’s important that regulators focus narrowly on safety and that they don’t impose unrealistically high standards. If self-driving software can be shown to be at least as safe as the average human driver, it should be allowed on the road.

What’s wrong with this reasoning it doesn’t require any increase in safety, when that should be so very easy to achieve. Recall how very dangerous driving is:

The average number of annual US traffic fatalities during the 2001 to 2005 calendar period is 42,873

OR, put more dramatically:

If flying were like driving: Given that a medium-capacity jetliner accommodates 200 people, this represents 217 airplanes that crash each year. This means, each week, approximately 4 airplanes would crash.

So Tim has set his sights very low indeed. But why did he do that? I think there is a deeper reason, and it has to do with the way Tim measures progress.

Technology can advance in many different directions. We are normally somewhat blind to this reality, but the direction and the nature of progress is by no means certain. This can be seen by examining the history of what people thought the future would be like.   Seadromes, for example, never happened. Aerial bombardment did happen, but did not lead to the end of civilization. In both cases there were inflection points un-noticed by the observers that caused non-linear development to occur. In the case of Seadromes, the inflection point was the increase in range of airplanes; in the case of aerial bombardment, it was the development of the atomic bomb, which assurred that aerial bombardment would never be used to it’s fullest possible extent (keep your fingers crossed on that on though–H.G. Wells may yet prove to be right on that one!)

But back to discussion of automatically driven cars, it is clear that Tim has a very particular measure that he uses to measure progress, and it includes more automation, more use of computers, more development of capital intensive industries, continued reliance on the internal combustion engine*, continued reliance on personal autonomous powered conveyance. But that’s not the only direction that you can measure progress, and in fact Tim’s measures seem to evidence a fixation on the tools rather than the results. Consider some of the factors working against the technology that Tim believes to be part of the future:

  • Internal Combustion Engine: Not absolutely necessary for this technology, but it’s the only one that presently exists with a robust enough infrastructure to enable self-driving technology.  Even if we weren’t running into the issue of peak oil, the reality of global warming limits the longevity of this obsolete, polluting technology, even though it is very efficient at extracting energy.
  • Personal autonomous self-powered (and therefore somewhat large and energy intensive) units – Implied here is a unit that needs to be parked, taking up valuable urban real estate.  Necessary, therefore is a parking lot, or something very like it. For a variety of reasons, valuable urban space in the city of the future can’t and won’t be devoted to transportation modules.
  • Capital Intensive large scale industry, able to plan for future stable, futire conditions: We should realize, just reading the headlines, that this is all stuff of the past.  As John Robb has correctly noted, Gloabl nstability is iincreasing.  What John did n’t note is that uncertainty about the nature of future instability is also increasing.  We won’t see even Toyota, now losing money, invest in this technology, let alone GM, Ford or Chrysler.

So I’d suggest we measure progress, not by how many Hospitals we have but how healthy we are.  I would not measure the efficacy of our transportation infrastructure by how good our cars are, but by how effectively and healthily it gets us to where we want to go. And that includes the use of the low tech or high tech; we should approach any design problem without any preconceptions.   I recall a story from my first year design professor, who told of a design competition to design the best botttle opener: someone brought a can with a pull tab.

So, our future transportation infrastructure, I believe will look much more like a mash up of technology that was invented a long time ago with computer networked infrastructure.  Much travel will be eliminated, with the advent of better communication (think teleconferencing, video conferencing and the pull tab example) But, getting updates of train, bus schedules virtually, so if I am walking down a street and want to go down town I can just easily get the actual location and closest spot to catch a bus/train ride there.  The information would be informed by an actual GPS receiver transmitter in the bus, not just some hypothetical schedule.   Taking that a step further, if I punch in “Chinese Restaurant” I get instruction on exactly what bus/train to catch to get me to one that folks with similar interests had liked.

To be sure, the greater concern for safety will be a major force driving partial adoption self-driving technology in collision avoidance systems, which I believe will become much more available and will at some point become ubiqutous, if not mandatory, on all new cars, but that’s the limit on self driving technologies that I see now.

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4 airplane crashes each week is safe enough for Tim Lee

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