Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Self-driving cars, Japan, and Rude Boy

If you can't watch the video, it shows a young man in a stylish leather jacket driving a Lexus IS through a mountain pass. “How do I explain it?” he wonders. “It was...exhilarating. Nimble. Responding to my every touch. Moving faster than the wind. That feeling of pure...driving. It was amazing.” The steering wheel disappears beneath his hands and suddenly he's sitting in a spacious self-driving orb, decades older, entering the outskirts of a major city (Toronto?). And then words appear onscreen:

“Enjoy the thrill of driving. While you still can.”

Yeah. Pretty much.


Reading the news today, it's hard not to come to a depressing conclusion:

Self-driving cars will likely be commercially available within our lifetimes.

The Weeknd in his all-red Lamb...borghini Aventador SV
Ok, so depending on who you are, that might not be depressing. It could even be damned exciting. I appreciate that not everybody loves driving like I do, or even particularly enjoys it, or thinks about it at all unless they're currently doing it. They're not against the concept, they just don't care. They don't don't spend all their disposable income on vehicles they don't need. They don't analyze the specs of cars old and new, calculating dollars-per-horsepower or power-to-weight ratios. They don't discover the entire library of The Weeknd because they saw an ad for the Starboy video and clicked on it to see what the car was.

That's fine. Self-driving cars are made by and for these people.

Some people, given the choice, would rather relax and enjoy the ride. There are people who are technically skilled, but so nervous and lacking in confidence that in practice they are a danger behind the wheel. And then there are people who should never operate a motorized vehicle under any circumstances. I'm actually hesitantly in favour of developing self-driving cars, especially if they could communicate with each other, dramatically improving safety and even alleviating congestion.

The only reason I'm ultimately against self-driving cars is because I am deeply afraid that if they become normalized in the public consciousness, real cars will be legislated against, and that if that happens, I'll never drive again.

I mean, Jesus, we practically have self-driving cars already: They're called BMWs. And grocery-getters aren't much better. Automatic transmissions, lane departure warning systems, fucking backup cameras, the entirety of automotive history has described an arc of human beings having to know less and less what the hell they're doing, to the undeniable detriment of their driving abilities. The new Civic Type-R, in spite of being standard-only, will actually fucking blip the throttle for you on a downshift, so that you don't have to learn to heel-toe. Because the last thing you want to do while driving is drive, apparently.

Kylie Jenner in her burnt orange Lamborghini Aventador SV
But Elon Musk, Waymo, Nissan, and everybody else researching autonomous vehicle technology don't care what I think. And one of my firm beliefs is that you can't fight the future: It's coming, and your only choice is whether to smile and hop on board or watch it leave you behind. I'm talking social justice in the 60s, the advent of the Internet, you can see it everywhere. I choose to get on board. I would even work for a company developing self-driving cars, if that came up. I'd hate to know that I helped sound the death knell of real cars, but if it's happening anyway, I might as well be a part of it, profit from it, and help make history. So I guess it's time to at least get comfortable with the idea.


There are, however, some alternatives to full autonomy.

Vehicle autonomy is currently categorized into four levels. Level 1 is what we currently have everywhere, and Level 4 is the long-term goal of zero driver input, ever. Level 3 is basically where the car can drive itself in any situation, but the driver still has the option of driving themselves if they want to.

Level 2 is where it gets sticky, and it's where we're stuck at present. At Level 2, the car drives itself, but it requires constant supervision from a human being, who must be as alert as they would be if driving themselves, ready to take over at a second's notice should the car's AI find itself embroiled in one of the numerous situations it is not equipped to handle. Do you see the problem with this?

Instead, is there a way to make Level 1 safer? What Japanese automakers, in contrast to their American and European counterparts, seem to have arrived at is a broad swathe of features that help a human driver operate their vehicle more easily. In other words, the computer becomes not a chauffeur but a copilot. You gotta like that kind of lateral thinking from a business, filling a need we never knew was there.


Toyota Prius Super Bowl commercial. Source.
Here is where we have to pause to acknowledge that the Prius is an absolutely terrible car. The only car I've driven, so far, that was worse than the Prius was the Smart Fortwo (fingers crossed I get to drive a Lada someday!). Well, ok, Prius is surprisingly peppy in Sport mode. But in addition to being auto-only, on account of it's electric, the, gas ped...the accelerator isn't attached to anything, and feels like it. When you depress it, you aren't pulling a cable that operates the engine, you're asking permission from the computer to torque the drive axle a few extra times each second. Really stupid. (Although the Fortwo still wins the worst because its torque converter shifts like someone learning to drive standard, and not making a lot of progress with it either. Although it was shockingly peppy and oddly fun to wheel around...)

But you also have to acknowledge that the Prius is kind of an amazing piece of engineering, developed at a time when Toyota was on top and certainly didn't need something new and surprising, but chose to develop something anyway in order to avoid becoming stagnant. It's therefore fitting that it was chosen as the test bed for innovative developments in driver-assist technology, in partnership withresearchers at MIT.

The research project uses what the article calls “parallel autonomy,” human drivers assisted by a computer's detailed analysis and superhuman reaction times. These Priuses use what is quickly becoming a fairly standard combination of GPS, cameras, and LIDAR (light-based radar – so, “eyes”) to facilitate emergency automatic braking and emergency automatic steering. The researchers assert that people become inattentive when riding in a Level 2 vehicle, so instead they sought to augment Level 1.


“If the [self-driving] car hits black ice, it's in charge of staying on the road. But [human operators] can help out when the car encounters conditions it's unsure how to handle. A human operator would look around and use the car's cameras and other sensors to issue new instructions. The teleoperator is there to make sure the car doesn't just shut down when it's too dumb to know what's going on.”

I guess this one's cheating, but it's still an interesting unexpected solution.


Acura NSX. Source.
Honda will apparently be using lessons learned from the Acura NSX to enhance the driving experience of its Regular Joe cars.

For example, the 2018 Accord will “match speeds with the car ahead, nudge the wheel to keep you from straying out of your lane, and it'll even bring the car to a stop if it detects an impending collision. It can even recognize traffic signs and display them to the driver. A multiangle backup camera is also standard on all trims. Blind-spot monitoring, front and rear parking sensors, rear cross traffic alert and a driver awareness monitor are optional.”

This is hardly an exhaustive list of all the developments in self-driving technology, or even just the Japanese sphere of it – that'd be a topic for a whole blog on its own – but it's a representative sampling of what's coming out of the country in that area.


And I kind of hate all this shit.

Elon Musk with a Tesla Model 3.
Tesla has actually recently included an option to allow their cars to go up to five klicks over the speed limit while in self-driving mode, which is unbelievably fucking stupid, because how the fuck did you not understand what you were getting into? Either accept that your car is going to restrain itself to the legal limit, or learn to drive it long distances yourself. Fucking rich people, hey?

And this actually speaks to my wider point: So, so many motorists are overwhelmed by their own sense of entitlement. I mean really. It's why they drive like complete dipshits on the highway, or send Mission Critical texts while driving, or drive while drunk or high. Traffic safety is one of the only things I take seriously. Because I love driving, I respect it.

“Oh, haha, but I actually drive better high, man.” Fuck you. Fuck. You. “But I only text when it's really important.” It's never important. You know it, I know it. It's certainly not more important than what's happening around you. When you say shit like that, what you're really saying is, “I think I'm more important than everyone else.” Oh, you literally think you are? Fuck you. We already went over this.


What's wrong with driver assist?

Takumi (AE86) and Keisuke (FD) race through the twisties.
Let's start with lane departure warnings. This is unbelievably stupid. How can you not notice when you're drifting out of your lane? Just pay attention to what the fuck you're doing! I'm annoyed this is even a thing. Besides, I intentionally drift out of my lane in the twisties, because that's where the best line is. Of course I never do it faster than I can see, because that's fucking obvious. Well, maybe this system could help wake somebody up if their attention starts to drift on the highway. Maybe that's legitimate. Alright. Alright.

Backup cameras? Well, OK, but the problem here is that people think that having a backup camera means they're free to just stare at a display on the dashboard, letting the beeps tell them when they're done. Um, no. You have to look all around the vehicle to make sure that pedestrians, other vehicles, etc aren't staggering gormlessly into your path, as they do. And you need to actually angle your car into the stall you want. And avoid knocking into anything outside the camera's extremely narrow viewpoint as you do it. A backup camera can be a handy tool. But like any tool, it's only effective for its intended use.

How about dashboard lights that indicate when there's a vehicle in your blind spot? Again, fine, as long as you remember that they're just tools. You still have to shoulder check and be certain the space you're moving into is clear, this is just one more safeguard in case you make a mistake. But that's not how most people will use them, is it? They will now trust the car to do their job for them, because no computer has ever had a glitch and no lighbulb has ever burned out. And by the way, when you have a spare moment, learn to adjust your mirrors correctly. Then you might not even have a blind spot. If you can see any part of the vehicle, you're doing it wrong.

Cruise control is bad enough. This stupid thing where it will now accelerate to passing speed without you touching the accelerator is even dumber. But I've already complained about this in another post, so we'll move on.

And now the worst one: Automatic braking. What the actual fuck? Excuse me. I am driving the car. I will decide when we brake. Full stop. No pun intended. Sorry, no, I am just fundamentally against anything that takes control and specifically decision-making out of the hands of the driver.

So what happens the first time the feature malfunctions while you're doing 120 on the highway with an F250 tailgating you? Right.

On top of that, have you ever had your car do something unexpected, perhaps while moving at speed? It's not a great feeling, is it? Do you think it would be improved if it occurred as, say, a drunk driver ploughed into the back of a bus up ahead? Rather than thank their guardian angel, I think the average driver would be so startled by the car taking action without their input that it would actually hamper their ability to perform any other manoeuvres that might be necessary to avoid becoming involved in the accident – manoeuvres which would already be harder to perform under braking, by the way.

Besides which, setting aside how much I've slagged off the average driver throughout this post, how bad do you think people's hazard identification skills are? Most people's kneejerk (heh) reaction when confronted by any kind of driving situation is to hit the brakes anyway, even and maybe especially when the best response would be to accelerate, so the extra half-second is just not worth it.

Samson Drifter from Mafia 3. Source.
“So, Rude Boy, I suppose you hate ABS too.” Actually no. ABS is acceptable because it genuinely improves safety, is fairly reliable, and – and this is critical – behaves consistently, generally activating under the same combination of conditions (speed, load, brake input, and so forth), thus becoming no more than another tool in the driver's toolbox, augmenting her abilities and contributing to the driving experience rather than detracting from it. Yeah, you can grow to depend on it, but the average person will never again drive a car without ABS (most people under, like, 30 never even have), and for a majority of people, in a majority of situations, ABS is superior to no ABS. (Yes, you can, and indeed must, learn to balance the brakes right on the edge of locking up in a vehicle without ABS, but does that shorten your stopping distance relative to if it DID have ABS? No.)


Now there are, last time I counted, roughly a hundred billion companies competing in this space. Tesla is doing it because Elon Musk is forward-thinking as hell, hence the electric cars (OH MY FUCKING GOD ELECTRIC CARS UGH.) Uber is going for it because, presumably, they imagine a future in which they offer a fleet of self-driving taxis rather than contracting service providers. Google, via Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, is in on it too, because since the day it was founded Google's business strategy has been “try a bunch of random bullshit.” And then there are the various startups focussing on just this one particular issue, many of them formed of refugees from some of the companies I just mentioned.

The significant thing here is that each of these companies has slightly different reasons for pursuing this goal – meaning their vision of the future of autonomous driving may actually vary more widely than you'd assume – and that they bring vastly different strengths and capabilities.

Mercedes's self-driving concept. Source.
Because it's not just tech companies who are in the game – traditional, non-Tesla vehicle manufacturers are having a go at it as well. It would be like if instead of getting Bill Gates to make Windows, IBM not only attempted to make their own software solution, but were actually competing against his at the same time. Toyota even partially funded the MIT project mentioned earlier. It's a new frontier in business, and in some ways it doesn't even make a lot of sense, but here we are.

I wonder if this is the beginning of a bigger trend? If it's good enough for Prius and Spider-Man: Homecoming, what other intersecting markets could benefit from collaboration between semi-competing companies?


The Prius article shares some words from the team lead: “I think we share the vision with Toyota that driving can be fun and people want to continue to drive.” And an unrelated researchers says, “Everyone thinks it's going to be super exciting to be in a self-driving car but it's actually going to be super boring.”

I still hope I never have to give up driving. If the Japanese government grandfathers in currently insured vehicles, I will keep all my current cars on the road until I die, probably in a spectacular traffic accident caused by human error and safety standards that are decades out of date. If they give everybody a hard deadline, say ten years, then my motorcycle will become my new daily. (Unlike most motorcyclists, I actually prefer driving to riding, but, if it comes to that, ten times out of ten I will choose to ride a motorcycle over being chauffered inside a robot.) If they take away our motorcycles – and they haven't so far, incredibly, so it's possible they never will – then I guess I'll just be hitting the track every weekend. I'd still be having a huge part of my identity ripped away, but at least I'd be able to get that comforting sensation of controlling a vehicle every once in a while. And I'll also, uh, play games like Grand Theft Auto, I guess?

Enjoy the thrill of driving. While you still can.

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