Bloomberg has a long article about Google’s lawsuit against Uber over self-driving car technology. In a nutshell, one of Google’s top engineers, Anthony Levandowski, left Google to start a new company called Otto that was then purchased by Uber for $700 million, and Google is accusing Levandowski of taking its company secrets with him and giving them to Uber.
The real story, though, is not over patent disputes but a debate in the industry over how to introduce the new technology to the market. This debate has to do with the distinction engineers are making between self-driving cars and driverless cars. Advocates of self-driving cars, meaning cars that can increasingly drive themselves but sometimes need humans to take over, argue that this stage is needed to collect as much information as possible to perfect the technology.
On the other hand are advocates of driverless cars, meaning cars that never need a human operator, who argue that not only is the self-driving phase not needed, but that it could be dangerous because a self-driving car may not be able to alert on-board humans that they need to take over in time for them to do so.
Add Intel to the list of companies working on self-driving cars. It just spent $15.3 billion purchasing Mobileye, a manufacturer of sensors used in autonomous cars. Intel’s CEO says he expects to have a complete hardware package ready for auto makers in 2024. Considering Ford’s promise to have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2021, that might be late, or it might just be more realistic.
Meanwhile, after much criticism from the industry, California has revised its proposed rules for self-driving cars. The original rules did not provide any possibility for testing of cars that did not allow a human override. This led Google and other companies to migrate their testing operations to Texas and other friendlier states.
Most states still don’t have any laws providing for self-driving cars, but because the people who wrote those laws never conceived of the possibility, most states also don’t outlaw them. Arizona, for example, has no law, and the governor “welcomes them with open arms.”
A new study estimates that self-driving cars will save the United States more than $300 billion per year. The study adds up the costs of traffic accidents and assumes that self-driving cars will reduce accidents by 90 percent. That’s optimistic, but the study doesn’t even count the savings due to congestion relief, increased productivity while traveling, and the reduced cost of delivering goods and services.
This is where it is important to understand the difference between benefits and costs. Jobs are not a benefit; income is the benefit. Jobs are costs: if more income can be produced with fewer jobs, everybody gains. That includes the people whose jobs are lost because–at least if the society is reasonably mobile–they can find better jobs instead, paid for out of the money people saved by reducing costs.
The big question about self-driving cars is “when?” On one hand, there are rumors that Google will start selling its self-driving cars next year. While even the Antiplanner doesn’t think that’s realistic, Ford is promising self-driving cars in 2019 and other manufacturers are saying 2020.
On the other hand, many are saying that, due to liability concerns and technical problems with such factors as rain and snow, it will take much longer than that. Another study predicts that, even if the first self-driving cars enter the market in the next decade, it will take several decades after that for them to dominate the roads.
The Antiplanner has written on this before, but the more I learn, the more I am convinced that the first self-driving cars will be for sale by 2020 and that they will be the dominant form of travel within not much more than a decade after that.
Auto manufacturers revealed plans for cars with self-driving capabilities at the New York Auto Show last week. These include cars that will be on the market within a year or two.
Volvo, for example, plans to introduce a car this Spring that can “take over both the steering and throttle to follow the car in front of it at speeds up to about 35 miles per hour.” Audi plans to offer cars with a similar feature (up to 40 mph) as soon as January, 2016. The manufacturers use some variation of the term “traffic jam assist” to describe this feature. While the drive won’t actually be steering the car, for liability reasons the cars will require that the drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel or at least put them there every 10 seconds or so.
Late next year Cadillac will offer its top-of-the-line CT6 model with a “super cruise” feature that will combine self-steering and adaptive cruise control at highways speeds: “hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving.” Cadillac publicity has at least implied that drivers will be able to take their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods without having to touch the wheel every 15 seconds or so like other brands. GM had announced this feature last year, but gave more particulars at the New York show.
A self-driving car traveling from San Francisco to New York is about half-way through its journey, having reached Ft. Worth, Texas yesterday. The car is an Audi, but its self-driving electronics have been designed by Delphi, an auto supply company. Like Continental and Bosch, Delphi has been developing its own self-driving hardware and software.
This raw AP video gives an idea of Delphi’s plans.
They left Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, on March 22 and took the long way around, first going south to Los Angeles where they could test the software in heavy traffic. The goal is to arrive in time for the New York Auto Show, which begins a week from today.
BMW has announced that it will demonstrate a valet-parking car at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. This is more than a car that can parallel park by itself. Instead, it is a car that can cruise through a parking garage until it finds an empty space and park there until recalled on a smart phone (or smart watch), at which time it will drive itself to the car’s owner.
Official BMW photo of a car supposedly demonstrating self-parking capabilities. Click image for a larger view.
BMW hasn’t said yet when this feature might be available to actual car-buyers. Some suggest that it might be available on BMW 7-series cars in 2016, but that is only speculation.
A new poll finds that nearly two out of three auto owners think self-driving cars are a dangerous idea. Slate writer Lee Gomes argues that self-driving cars may never happen. Both are wrong.
The pollsters don’t argue that self-driving cars actually are dangerous; only that “automakers will have to work to win over car shoppers who think some of the technology makes vehicles more dangerous.” But they really won’t; they just have to make the technology available to early adopters, and as those pioneers prove it to work, more people will want it.
Gomes’ argument is that Google’s self-driving car critically depends on accurate maps, and such maps are expensive and time-consuming to make. Moreover, Gomes adds, keeping the maps up to date with daily changes in routes, traffic signals, speed limits, and other factors will be nearly impossible.
Self-driving car advocates often note that more than 90 percent of serious accidents result from driver error, and thus estimate that autonomous cars will reduce fatalities by 90 percent. Indeed, in 2008 a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study of crashes between July 2005 and December 2007 found that 5,096 were caused by driver error, while just 130 were caused by vehicle failure and 135 were caused by the weather.
After some adjustments, NHTSA concluded that 93 percent of accidents can be attributed to driver error. So it seems reasonable to conclude that self-driving cars will save more than 31,000 lives per year (i.e., about 93 percent of the 33,560 fatalities suffered in 2012).
Not so fast, says a group called the Casualty Actuarial Society. It took a close look at NHTSA’s 2008 study and found that “49% of accidents contain at least one limiting factor that could disable [autonomous vehicle] technology or reduce its effectiveness.” That means self-driving cars will only reduce fatalities by about half, not 90 percent. While 16,000 lives saved per year is nothing to complain about, there’s a big difference between 16,000 and 31,000.
Tomorrow, the Cato Institue will release a new paper on the policy implications of self-driving cars. Antiplanner readers can download a preview of the paper today.
In a nutshell, the paper argues that self-driving cars combined with car sharing will put public transit agencies out of business. The average cost of transit, including subsidies is $1 a passenger mile. Self-driving cars should cost far less than half of that. This means there will be no reason to continue to subsidize transit except in a few very dense areas such as New York City.
The paper also points out that most of the effects of self-driving cars can’t be predicted today, so Congress should give up on the idea of having states and metropolitan planning agencies write long-range transportation plans that we know will be wrong. Transportation agencies should solve today’s problems today and prepare for autonomous vehicles by keeping roads in good repair and following consistent sign standards.