The Big Idea: Robots on the Road

by Eric Jaffe ’06JRN Published Fall 2016
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The latest version of Google’s self-driving car is tested in Mountain View, California. / Photograph by Brooks Kraft / Getty Images

You say the technology for driverless cars is here, but elements like regulation and insurance liability are not even on the radar.
These things need to be sorted out. But they’re not technological problems. These are quantifiable safety and liability issues.

The government needs to determine the minimum level of safety that an autonomous car needs to exhibit before it can drive freely. We think that level is four hundred thousand miles between collisions. That’s twice as good as a human, on average. But I really don’t understand why this is taking so long. I think this is a fairly simple proposition, and meanwhile people are dying.

Just how big are the safety benefits of driverless cars?
Do you know how many people in the world die every week because of cars? Twenty-eight thousand. That’s a Hiroshima-scale disaster every month. For people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, automobile accidents are the number-one killer. And yet we don’t talk about it. We accept it. We can have silly debates about the ethical dilemmas of driverless cars, which discuss who the car should save in the event that it can’t avoid a fatal crash. But for every week we delay, another twenty-eight thousand people die.

“A system that is ‘almost fully autonomous’ is dangerously deceptive.”

Can we assume that driverless cars will improve the environment?
When Melba and I began researching the book, we naively thought that autonomous vehicles would be a win for the environment. But it’s not clear. Driverless cars are more convenient, so miles driven will go up. That’s not a good thing.

But then you have to look at other factors, like the fact that driving will be more efficient. There will be more consistent speeds, less start and stop, less parking and idling and traffic jams. These things will amount to substantial improvements in performance. Also, the vehicles can be smaller and lighter, so even though we may see that increase in miles, the vehicles will be more efficient.

Robots On The Road

The economic impact of driverless cars is going to be huge, for better and for worse.

Yes, a lot of people will lose their jobs, and not just truck drivers and taxi drivers. Dozens more professions will be transformed. The body shop, where people fix cars after collisions — that’s going away. And how many healthcare hours are devoted to car accidents? A huge number. How much income do parking tickets generate for cities? It’s not negligible. There’s this cascade effect.

But then we’ll see some opportunities. There will be a huge ripple effect on new e-commerce models and business models, creating new jobs. More miles driven means more cars sold, regardless of the ownership model, and more cars mean more car maintenance.

You end the book by comparing the rise of driverless technology to a new stage of human evolution. Will it really be that significant?
Some evolutionary biologists believe that vision was an accelerating force of evolution and natural selection. The “light-switch theory” suggests that once changes in the atmosphere allowed more light to reach the earth, and we developed light-sensitive eyes in response, the ability to see enabled a lot of other new technologies, including camouflage, running quickly, and predation. Once you can see, you have to create a model of your world, and you need a bigger brain. It all unfolds from there.

That’s exactly the case with deep learning. The ability to see and perceive is not just another item on the laundry list of things you need to make a robot. It is the pivotal piece that sparks everything. This is why it was an inflection point in biology, and I believe it’s going to be the inflection point in autonomous vehicles and robotics.

We’ve been dreaming about this moment for decades, centuries, millennia perhaps. Finally it has arrived.

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