What’s Missing from Uber (and Google’s) Push for Autonomous Cars

Uber’s (and Google’s) push for autonomous cars is predictable. We humans love having machines do our work for us. Elevators don’t need operators anymore so why do cars need drivers? Quite simply, all of the safety and technological challenges of transporting people in elevators have been wholly met so now millions of people safely travel in these precusers to autonomous cars.

The differences between elevators and cars are many, of course. First is the fact that an elevator travels within a system where the space of the car’s travel is never shared and always defined. Also, as I mention above, there were decades of elevator use where the elevator car required an operator to control and monitor the car’s operation. So, the evolution went like this: invention of the elevator, operation of the elevator by a human and finally operation of the elevator by a electro-mechanical system (with some human input…the selection of floors, opening and closing of doors and emergency button).

Aviation has seen huge benefits from autonomous systems. Commercial airliners spend a large percentage of flight-time piloting themselves, but pilots have to have a deep knowledge of the complicated systems in the cockpit in order to intervene when necessary. “One of the myths about automation is that as the level increases, you need less human expertise,” said Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center. He points to Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 landing of his US Airway Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. “Automation never would have done that,” at the time, Reimer said. “It doesn’t work outside programming bounds well.”

Cars have been in continuous development for well over a century. ABS brakes, automatic transmissions, traction control, Xenon headlights and a host of other advancements have all added to the overall convenience and safety afforded by the cars that are driven today. Many of today’s cars can alert the driver of obstacles in the road and some can even apply the brakes if the driver fails to do so. Cars can also alert the driver that his car has left its lane or that another car is closer than is safe. What all of those developments have in common is that they are designed to aid and augment the attention, skill and judgment of the driver.

When the Uber car in Arizona smashed into the woman who was walking her bike across the road the system in place was specifically designed to function without the attention, skill and judgment of the driver, and therein lies the problem with the company mindset at Uber.

Uber and the other companies who seek autonomous cars are missing crucial safety steps. Their focus on their ambitious long-term goal has caused them to avoid confronting the myriad of short-term details that must be identified and addressed before the goal can be achieved. In the Arizona case, there was a driver who had so much unwarranted confidence in a system about which she surely had very little actual understanding that it caused her to effectively turn off her own attention, skill and judgment. The driver suffered from a belief (that the car would operate safely by itself) rather than exercising an opinion (that perhaps the car was going too fast for such a dark road) irrespective of the posted speed limit.

That particular brand of technology, the kind that invites us to pay less attention to what we are doing than we would if we had to manage more of the processes for ourselves, is a sign of how foolish and shortsighted big companies can be. If one goal of autonomous cars is protecting human life, then human judgment and decision making must always be valued and encouraged.

 

What’s Missing from Uber (and Google’s) Push for Autonomous Cars

What do the books we get rid of say about us?

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On their way to the eyes of other readers

I’ve been getting rid of a lot of stuff lately and I don’t have all that much stuff to start with. Someone once described me as having a small footprint and that pretty much felt right to me. No, I’ve not yet read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo but it’s on my short list. I’m serious. I know that some folks keep books forever. Many have huge bookshelves holding the paper-bound words and thoughts that have influenced them over the years. Being very much a 20th Century Man I get the appeal of being able to grab a book, turn to a page, and illustrate a point to oneself or others.

Still, that’s a facility that has largely lost its appeal to me.

So, just a few thoughts on these now dearly departed books. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy is a fine book for any writer to read. The two writers corresponded for decades about their triumphs, their marriages, their problems with writing and their shortages of money. Talk about bringing the challenges of being a writer home where it belongs; between friends. I’ve known many writers but the few who were my friends seem seldom cross paths with me anymore. Writers, always solitary, seem prone to getting more isolationist as they get older.

George Patton always intrigued me. I loved that he was loathed by Andy Rooney (whom I also loathed) and revered by my uncle Mike who liked to say, “I rolled with Patton in WWII.” More than anything I reveled in his myriad personal contradictions. George C. Scott’s movie portrayal of the man led people to believe he had booming and gruff voice when the opposite was true. Patton was both urbane and obscene. As brutal as he could be to soldiers under his command he also got far fewer of them killed than did more humble and measured generals like Omar Bradley. I always found the imperial nature of MacArthur and his efforts to upstage Truman, as well as his proclivity to occupy grand places such as the Malacañang Palace, far more damning than anything Patton ever did. Best of all, Patton was a real SoCal boy just like me. The sprawling rancho where he grew up has long since been swallowed whole by the urban sprawl of what is now San Gabriel, less than an hour east of here.

Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is the only military book I have ever read that was nowhere near as good as what is effectively a movie that was based on it. I’m sure Ambrose was a good guy and a solid historian but Band of Brothers is marginally written and uninspired compared to the HBO series. I’ll be blunt. Don’t waste your time with it.

Love in a Dry Sea is a novel by Shelby Foote who would later write the saga of the Civil War that Ken Burns used as the foundation of the epic PBS documentary. I loved Sheby Foote and his erudite and seemingly effortless command of the language. Comparing Sheby Foote to historian Ed Bearss is like comparing Jack Nicklaus to Jack Fleck. The odd thing is that as magnificent a writer as Foote was when it came to non-fiction he was blandly average as a writer of fiction. It’s odd and somewhat sad since Foote always aspired to be a novelist.

It nearly pains me to watch Plato hit the road but as often as I find myself thinking about or speaking about the dialectic or quoting some obscure line from the Phaedo I haven’t picked the book up in years. Plato’s good and stuck in my head so the need to have him sitting on my bookshelf has lessened. The book on Aquinas was easy to set adrift.

George Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith is the single most difficult to read book I have ever come across. Most folks hit the wall harder with Kant but Santayana had me pinned. I’d catch myself reading the same half-page again and again hoping my brain might gain some intellectual traction. Way back when, I might have gotten some of it but I tried reading a few pages the other day and I nearly got lightheaded.

The editing books are mere works of reference and paper references (about the use of words and language, anyway) have been rendered superfluous by the presence of Google beneath our fingertips. Yes, I do still have the last dictionary I ever bought. It’s an Oxford Concise and I reach for it a couple times a week. But, those books on style and usage have long outstayed their usefulness to me. I won’t miss them.

Geez, that Jon Krakauer’s a good writer. I loved Into Thin Air but I keep getting derailed from finishing Under the Banner of Heaven. Talk about a gift for prose. Talk about energy. Talk about clarity of narrative. Krakauer is reputed to be rather petulant kind of guy, trending toward self-righteousness, but he is an amazing writer. I’d love to have a beer with him.

From time to time I’ve enjoyed reading a little of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa if only to remind myself that even great writers can come across as merely average and totally mortal. Though some of the stories are amusing, this was an easy one to get rid of.

I know what you’re asking yourself; how the hell does guy get rid of his Idiots Guide to the Pilates Method, a retrospective on Speed Racer, the Diaries of Kafka and a book about swearing? It’s a head scratcher for sure but they’re outta here.

You know, the more I think about I’m pretty sure there’s still room on my bookshelf for the Speed Racer book.

It’s nice and thin!

 

 

 

 

What do the books we get rid of say about us?