Automating Our Doom?

How on Earth will cars with and without drivers get along? The time will soon come when the answer to this once-flippant question is our every-day life. The autonomous car will no doubt face many obstacles on its path to legal and economic acceptance, but it will get there. This impending reality comes at great consternation to at least one of the most well-respected motoring journalists in the world.

James May might just be my favorite broadcaster of all time. He’s easily the most personable of the original Top Gear trio. Every woman I have ever had great sex with absolutely loves James May. I can bestow no greater endorsement. Some of May’s best work is not strictly car related, and his quest to Find the Drink That Speaks For Modern Britain cemented him a place in my heart many years ago.

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Despite my immense fondness for him, I would accuse James May of uttering one of the worst faults of logic in modern automotive media. It was at the end of an otherwise enjoyable Top Gear film where he raced against The Terramax, an autonomous military truck, while driving the then-new Range Rover.

“How about that? An intelligent machine driven by a computer has been beaten by the intelligent machine driven by a human being, which is exactly as it should be of course. We are still the most important component in a car, and if we weren’t we’d all be doomed.”

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Doomed? As much as I love driving, I just can’t get behind such a notion. At this point, autonomous cars are an inevitability. I personally thought they were at the time that Top Gear film first aired. I took umbrage with May’s assertion. The line stank of arrogance, which was disappointing to see from someone who I normally found so affable.

Yes, automobiles that drive themselves could be disastrous for meat-based driving enthusiasts. I personally find the prospects of how awful autonomous cars could be for we car lovers too depressing to dwell on. So instead, I think about how well it could go if the correct social awareness and legislation, against all odds, managed to come together and form a glorious future for cars.

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The crux of the issue is that, in most of the USA at least, driving is synonymous with independent mobility. If you want to go wherever you want whenever you want in this country then you simply must have access to an automobile. We are certainly not alone in this distinction. In vast swaths of Canada I would say that axiom is even more true.

This needs to change, and the absolute best option is the autonomous automobile. As much as I personally would sooner let my dog drive than spend money on such a thing, I will fight tooth and nail against anyone who thinks that self-driving cars shouldn’t happen. People need to travel freely if we want to have an economy worth living in. It is basically a human right at this point, or at least it should be considering how ludicrously wealthy a tiny portion of Americans have become off the backs of everyone else who lives and works here.

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Some combination of large and small autonomous automobiles coupled with clean electric/biofuel power could spell out an efficient, sustainable, driver-independent transportation infrastructure that would hugely benefit us all.

But where does this leave we poor, battered car lovers? How the hell can I support this line of thinking and also claim to be a die-hard driver and gear-head? How dare I!?

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James May would be so disappointed in me.

As sad as that thought might be, I refuse not to face this issue with optimism.

Optimism is one hell of a concept, and I find that taking an optimistic attitude leads to the proliferation of far more good ideas than being a pessimist. The power of optimism could well lead to a veritable utopian civilization as far as drivers are concerned. Understanding how is simple. All you have to do is sit in the current, real world of insanely frustrating traffic while maintaining an optimistic attitude.

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...alright, so that might actually be a superhuman request.

But! I maintain that it is possible. I’ve done so myself many times by this point in my driving life, and it has led to some rather attractive ideas for the future of driving.

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Now, the elephant in the room here is definitely the concept of speed limits, and, more importantly, speeding tickets. With this level of tech governments could easily track speeders, pick up their registration by camera/wireless sensors, and send them their bill in the mail. Your car’s ECU could even betray your telemetry directly to the authorities, punishing you for even the slightest infractions. It would be the concept of speed cameras as found in the UK taken to their absolute logical conclusion.

This idea is, of course, absolutely horrifying.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. With the correct road network there would be no need for over-regulation. Data gathered about speed could be employed Black Box style, only to be used in court when a driver has caused real damage. A culture of mutual respect and vastly increased standards for human drivers could lead to a future where humans and machines share an efficient, high-speed road network . If the roads worked properly there would be no need to disobey traffic regulations in urban or suburban areas, and no need to overly police human drivers who don’t cause trouble on rural roads.

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If you ask me, this approach is the correct standard for personal freedom in a country that has long claimed to be the “leader of the free world.”

It would take a ton of work and a lot of good ideas to make this happen. I’m a bit heavy on the ideas myself and could write a complete article for each. There are surely a great deal of other road network improvements I have not thought of that deserve similar, or even more coverage. Equally sure is that none of these are original ideas and that plenty of folks have had similar thoughts.

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A Campaign of Improved Road Markings

This one is boring but it needs to happen first. Current autonomous car tech involves visual light cameras, and that trend is not set to change any time soon. We already know from studies with human drivers that simple improvements to road markings can vastly improve the safety of said road. This will be overwhelmingly true for self-driving cars as well. In addition to better road markings, our roads need to be less terrible in general, with better surfacing and maybe overpasses that aren’t actively disintegrating.

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Traffic Lights that Can See

Large cities like LA already have countless traffic cameras. There’s no reason in our world of emerging machine intelligence that we can’t build software to look at a video feed and make better decisions about when to swap traffic signals. In smaller cities especially, long stretches of highway punctuated by stop-lights result in terrible, undulating waves of crawling congestion.

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Instead, traffic signals should communicate with eachother, monitor traffic, and look out for opportune moments to change the lights. I can’t recount how many times I’ve been the lead car in a column of traffic in front of which there is a very large gap of empty road and the stop-light a quarter mile ahead stays green riiiight up until I reach it. It has to be one of the most frustrating aspects of driving. A smart signaling system could recognize those gaps and opportunistically let cross-traffic pass.

It should go without saying that smart traffic signals should also communicate with drivers. Traffic light timers are a much needed and painfully obvious improvement to our modern traffic situation.

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Vastly Higher Standards for Human Drivers

Once transportation via autonomous car becomes common and cheap, there will be absolutely no excuse for a human operator licence to be so laughably easy to obtain. In central parts of the USA especially, driver training and testing is an absolute joke. A one-armed, mentally challenged orangutan could be trained to pass an Indiana driver’s test; and that orangutan would get to keep his licence for decades without being re-tested.

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Such is the patently absurd truth of qualifying human drivers in this country, and that should all come to an end when we no longer need to drive in order to get around. With every ex-shitty-driver who wants to stare at their phone safely tucked into their wheeled transport pods, we folks who want to drive will have far more orderly roadways to navigate. I personally welcome the prospect of legitimately challenging driver testing. Sounds like fun!

In-Car Traffic Signals

This is where it gets cool. If we can make our road network smart enough to recognize individual vehicles then we could forgo the use of visual traffic controls altogether. We’ve already started heading in this direction, with German luxury brands leading the charge.

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Automobile in-car computers would have to be standardized somewhat, and some kind of retro-fit solution would need to be devised for existing classic cars. That said, the idea of an in-car system that feeds you a virtual representation of all road signage and traffic lights is extremely attractive. A heads-up-display that could show street names, stop signals with their timers, knows where you are going and is generally chill on how fast you get there sounds to me like driving heaven.

Let me paint you a picture:

Imagine a classic roadster. An updated but still old-school engine burns high-octane biofuel at increased compression. You cruise it through downtown. The punchy internal combustion power erupts with a symphony of fuel-induced, burbling engine noise that echoes through the streets. A modest, unobtrusive HUD informs you about all the important details of the road network around you. Autonomous cars yield to you and other human drivers are vastly better qualified than they once were. Traffic is guided by smart signals and the shockwave effect is non-existent. You choose where you go, have complete manual control of the car, and are penalized by traffic law only when you cause a problem.

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I swear to sweet baby Jesus, if I could experience that I would think I’d died and gone to heaven.

Come on folks, how cool would that be!? I know that the future of driving has the potential to be crushingly depressing for driving enthusiasts. Self-driving cars could ruin it all for us. But this is America dammit! As cynical as I’ve become, as many problems as we face, I still believe this can and should be the Land of the Free.

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I will be totally unwilling to relinquish my love of cars in the future, as I hope is true for much of the Jalopnik proletariat. This community and many others should be doing our best to champion an idealized future for cars where we who love to drive and those who would rather be driven both get to have the experiences on the road that we desire.

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