There are many times in mankind’s history where transitional changes have entered the scene and altered the future for everyone. Most start as good if not great ideas; some take hold, while others become passing fads.
Groups of hunter-gatherers gave way to agriculture, which cemented people in one place — which begat cities and then laws to control the masses. Ships gave us international trade, then were used for whaling, for fuel oil that in time gave way to crude oil. Water gave us power for mills, then steam power; and with that the industrial age and modern commerce were born. Industrialization’s steam engine power would in time be replaced by oil as that basic fuel for the world. Horses powered chariots, wagons, and carriages for thousands of years before our automobile age arrived — once again, powered by crude oil. The 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog would be replaced by going online to Amazon or other department stores. About the only place web users don’t seem to go is sears.com.
One thing is certain: Every day we are being told that we are entering another transitional phase in our economic society, but with only speculation as to where this phase is taking us. In reality, we’re deep into that transition, which started with the advent of the personal computer over 40 years ago. It’s easy to prove that point: Today, do you spend more time in front of a computer screen or behind the wheel of the family automobile? For most, the answer is obvious.
Even that’s a bit misleading, though. The modern computer age for the masses is simply a subgroup of the electric age, and that’s been in place and evolving for well over a century. Moreover, these shifts in cultural and economic realities don’t remove and replace what came before. After all, people still hunt, farmers still grow crops, we listen to the radio as our great-grandparents did so long ago, more people work on ranches today than did in the Old West, and more people own horses than did 70 years ago.
Which is why it seems so strange for many to suggest that something is coming our way that will forever change how we view and use transportation. After all, those visions still involve cars.
Over the past two weeks there were even more articles published on self-driving cars. Ford CEO Jim Hackett was quoted as saying that the “entire world would be amazed at how much progress his company has made in the past year”. The article then revealed some of the Ford autonomous fleet’s incredible learning lessons: Twelve months ago those vehicles didn’t know what to do when there was a bicyclist in the road, but now they can predict where “pedestrians, bicyclists, and people in wheelchairs might be headed.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s something a 16-year-old can do the very first time behind the wheel.
In the same Detroit News article Marcy Klevorn, president of Ford Mobility, claimed they have learned that people living in high-rise condos in Miami don’t like to leave their residences to go downstairs and out into the parking lot to retrieve the pizza or packages that Ford’s self-driving Fusions are hauling around that city. A statement like that is almost breathtaking in its inanity. Did Ford really need to invest $1 billion in Argo AI to work on self-driving cars that have no idea what to do if a bicycle appears in the road, while delivering Domino’s Pizza in Miami only to find out that people want pizza delivered to the door of their condo on the 38th floor?
Let me help Ford save another $1 billion, to buy another year of lessons in the limitations of self-driving cars: It’s highly doubtful that people in homes or apartments will want to leave their residences to run outside and grab their pizza in
A. Heavy rain
B. Snow storms
C. Ice storms, or
D. Hurricane Harvey.
But in any case, why would any car company spend a billion dollars to find a way to put Domino’s pizza delivery people out of their jobs?
Does anyone remember when Jeff Bezos of Amazon was on 60 Minutes to let us know that their secret plan was to deliver our packages by drone within 30 minutes of our ordering an item? Well, that was December 1, 2013. Five years ago, and I’m still seeing FedEx, UPS, USPS, and Amazon’s private delivery drivers bringing packages to our door. I haven’t seen that first drone yet, but I loved the idea of Amazon’s drones delivering hundreds of thousands, if not millions of orders during the holidays in any major metro area. Our skies would look like a Biblical plague of joyous giving.
Don’t Ignore the Dark Side
But there’s also a very dark side to all of this. Remember when all these companies working on self-driving cars were demanding no rules, no regulations, and the right to test their products on public highways? Remember that they even went so far as to start testing those vehicles without governmental permission?
Although the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report won’t be out until early next year, insiders at Uber’s self-driving car division have been speaking to the press about what really led up to that pedestrian fatality in Tempe, Ariz., earlier this year. For those who have forgotten, on March 18, 2018, a homeless woman, Elaine Herzberg, crossing a well-lit divided road in Tempe with her bicycle, was hit by an “alleged self-driving” Volvo XC-90 test car operated by Uber. The safety driver on board, Rafaela Vasquez, was distracted watching The Voice being streamed on her iPhone.
Uber was testing its products in Arizona because California authorities had reprimanded the company for not applying for a permit to test its cars on the streets of San Francisco. Not caring about official permission, Uber had put those vehicles on the road, where they immediately ran multiple red lights the first day; Uber engineers and spokespeople claimed the vehicles were under the safety drivers’ control at the time. But they weren’t. Arizona’s governor then stepped up, telling Uber to bring its cars to his state for testing. They wouldn’t need permits there.
What we know now is that Uber’s software engineers were dialing back those vehicles’ safety systems’ capabilities — because they were too reactive. But dialing them back kept the cars from doing emergency braking in short distances and changed how quickly they could swerve out of the way of an object in the road. That’s right, the two most powerful and important things any self-driving car would need to do to protect a human life were in fact being disabled on that vehicle. One Uber software engineer told Business Insider that the car would easily have run over a toddler in a parking lot with the new directives programmed into it.
Why did they do this? Because Uber had a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, and the word was that he might well cancel Uber’s plans to develop self-driving vehicles. After all, billions were being spent, but Uber was way behind major players in the field. So Khosrowshahi was going to go to Phoenix and be given a test drive in Uber’s self-driving vehicle. But what he and the public didn’t know was that the vehicle overcompensated for so many things, that the engineers decided to flatten its responsiveness to deliver a soft, comfortable, and predictable ride for their boss — thereby saving their $400,000-a-year jobs. And when Ms. Herzberg’s demise became a twist in that plot, they first blamed the driver for not paying attention, then blamed the victim because she had traces of meth and pot in her system. But she really died because they were disabling, or mitigating the capabilities of, their vehicle’s safety devices.
Maybe this is why California wanted to regulate the testing of self-driving cars in that state. Arizona’s governor, and others, maintain “Companies are always better at self-regulation than government is,” so come on down. Ayn Rand would be so proud.
One day we will have self-driving cars. Maybe one day we’ll have self-flying drones to haul us around. One day we may even have 3D holographic computer screens that show us exactly what a new outfit or electronic device will do for us without leaving our living room. But, for the record, one of the very first attractions at Six Flags when it opened in 1960 was the self-driving car track. It’s true; one could use that vehicle without ever touching the steering wheel, and it would deliver you back to the gate each and every time. True, it was a bit jerky and often slammed you into the rail that held you in place; when you ran into the person in front of you, you felt the bump. Yet millions have ridden those cars safely over the past 58 years.
About the only thing self-driving cars can do in Miami right now is deliver Domino’s Pizza. Assuming you don’t mind riding your condo’s elevator down 38 floors to grab your pizza out in the parking lot. Ford needs to learn that’s not actually progress. At least for those wanting home delivery of their pizza.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org