Car industry expects hundreds or thousands more to die so it can get self-driving cars right

Lentz-Reuters

Toyota Executive Jim Lentz on Reuters TV

Car industry reaction to last week’s fatal collision between a ‘self-driving’ Uber car and a pedestrian sheds useful light on its view of humans’ place in the carosphere.

“A hundred or 500 or a thousand people could lose their lives in accidents like we’ve seen in Arizona,” Toyota North America Chief Executive, Jim Lentz, suggested to Reuters in a discussion about the future of real-road tests of AVs (for the record, the Uber vehicle involved was a Volvo).

Lentz continued: “The big question for government is: How much risk are they willing to take? If you can save net 34,000 lives [about the annual US road death toll], are you willing to potentially have 10 or 100 or 500 or 1,000 people die?” he said.

Note how the issue of self-driving cars killing people by the hatful suddenly becomes the government’s problem. The car industry wants to know how much carnage ‘the government’ is willing to suck up so that its members can enjoy an unimpeded run at perfecting self-driving cars.

It’s an absolute article of faith among AV cheerleaders that self-driving vehicles will eliminate road fatalities. This belief rests on a dangerous combination of overstretched logic and hubris. The logic runs that almost all vehicle ‘accidents’ result from human error, so eliminating human drivers will eliminate mistakes and therefore all injuries and deaths. The hubris is that engineers can create AVs that are 100% perfect 100% of the time. And AVs will have to be thus.  No less than absolutely-undiluted perfection will do.

But some very experienced AV engineers seriously doubt whether the incredibly-complex webs of intra- and extra-vehicular technology required will ever achieve the 99.99999999999999999999999% glitch-free operation envisaged.

Lentz suggests that 1,000 lives is ultimately a reasonable price to pay to see whether perfect robocars are possible. After all, that would be just 0.08% of the 1.2 million people killed on the roads worldwide every year.

There’s something distasteful about an industry that viciously fought against seat belts and dirt-cheap safety improvements in the past solemnly counting-out, in the lives of strangers, the price of … perhaps … absolving itself from responsibility for the consequences of its trade.

One thing’s for sure. The quote at the top would never have been conceived if ‘government’ had been replaced with ‘Toyota’ and ‘people’ with ‘our employees’.

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Self-driving cars are a stupidly-expensive distraction

As you know, QuadRanting is no fan of autonomous vehicles. It’s not just that they are infinitely more difficult to achieve than their over-excited fans would have you believe, it’s that no one has really come up with a convincing reason why we need them.

Of course, since self-driving cars (SDCs) are the greatest of techno-narcissism’s current grands projets, the requirement for something as dreary as a worthwhile raison d’etre for them is considered to be an irrelevance. They’re exciting and theoretically achievable so let’s pour billions of dollars into them!

In the same way that the word ‘blockchain’ magically enables unscrupulous outfits to relieve gullible fools of their money, any story involving ‘self-driving cars’ is fully guaranteed to gain wholly uncritical media coverage, even in outlets that should know better. So when we learned that fully-autonomous vehicles will be on the UK’s roads by 2021, it was no surprise to hear the news not from the lips of Ricky the Magic Pixie but from those of the Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

You have to ask why the automotive industry – huge, highly regulated and quite responsible at the operational level, though not existentially – would want to play silly buggers in this way. The answer is that by and large it doesn’t.

There is a smidgen of truth in the idea that the big automakers fear they’ll be put out of business by Google and other tech giants flexing their artificial intelligence muscles. But the manufacturers know they have more pressing threats to their future to worry about than toy cars adorned with $100,000 dollars-worth of sensors that need to be connected 100% of the time to a multi-billion dollar IT infrastructure that itself is guaranteed to be ‘up’ 100% of the time. Yup, 99.99% won’t be good enough. Especially when even Chris Urmson, the former Chief Technical Officer of self-driving cars at Google, recently said it’ll be at least 30 years before anyone achieves a truly self-driving car. So 2050, Mr Hammond, not 2021.

Above all, motor manufacturers understand that even relatively minor moves (in comparison to putting a fully autonomous vehicle on the roads), like developing a new hybrid drivetrain, are immensely complex global undertakings that span international supply chains, multiple vehicle regulators, varied climates, traffic rules and highway design protocols sales channels, and so on. Agreeing something as seemingly insignificant as a global standard for an electronic interface that allows different components to talk to each other can take many years.

It’s obvious that a lot of people are mentally constructing castles on the sand in order to clutch at pies in the sky.

But something has caused Wired.com, hitherto one of the most shameless boosters of all things autonomous, to inject a note of realism into its discourse. Perhaps someone there had a butchers at the rising tide of SDC stories and thought, “Hmm. What does that remind me of?”

Hype-cycle

In Before Self-Driving Cars Become Real, They Face These Challenges, Wired quotes Bryan Salesky, who heads up Ford-backed autonomous vehicle company Argo AI, saying (emphasis added):

“Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology.” Medium.com

Take note of the comment on safe deployment. Achieving Level 5 (total) automation will be incredibly difficult. From the Wired piece:

”Technology developers are coming to appreciate that the last 1 percent is harder than the first 99 percent,” says Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Nutonomy, a Boston-based self-driving car company acquired by automotive supplier Delphi this fall. “Compared to last 1 percent, the first 99 percent is a walk in the park.”

Do the math. He’s saying that when the SDC-ers get 99 percent of the way to Level 5, they’ll be less than half-way to actually putting the technology safely on the road. Unless the rate of development goes exponential, it will take decades to iron out the final bugs between Level 4 and Level 5. And while we’re at it, let’s mix-in the warning from Salesky, above: developers – or countries – that try to rush the process will kill people.

Wired calls Iagnemma a killjoy. Its piece concludes with the obligatory happy ending:

The good news is that there seems to be enough momentum to carry this new industry out of the trough and onto what Gartner calls the plateau of productivity. Not everyone who started the journey will make the climb. But those who do, battered and a bit bloody, may just find the cash up there is green, the robots good, and the view stupendous.

I suspect the phrase ‘battered and a bit bloody’ will sooner rather than later prove rather too literal as far as some passengers and bystanders are concerned. Expect it to come back to haunt Wired.

‘Stupendous’ looks misplaced as well. What the plateau delivers is well short of what peak hype promises. A Gartner curve adapted to SDCs might look like this:

Autonomous-Vehicle-Hype-cycle

I’m not sure we’ll exactly see a trough of disillusionment. People, especially in the media, are deeply wedded to the belief that everything is getting better and that technology can deliver all our dreams at the flick of a venture capitalist’s quiff. Unless or until there’s a global depression deep enough to scour right through the layers of hype, sheer techno-optimism will ensure the SDC-ers have sufficient Other People’s Money to burn.

Nevertheless, the climb up from reality setting in to the plateau of productivity will be a lot, lot longer than implied by the Gartner model. And the economic headwinds will be getting stronger all the way up. The market for any car, let alone a super whizz-bang expensive SDC, is shrinking along with the dwindling buying power of ordinary people.

Sounding somewhat desperate, one SDC start-up is aiming at retirement communities – clearly hoping that the pension ponzi doesn’t pop before its founders cash out. Another aims at disabled users. That’s a better idea, in that there’s actually a problem there that an SDC could be the solution to. But again, it’s a niche market that doesn’t justify the stratospheric cost of attaining Level 5. There are undoubtedly better and cheaper community-based solutions for disabled travellers.

All in all, SDCs are industrial civilisation’s equivalent of brilliant plumage in the animal kingdom or exotic blooms among plants. But unlike natural showing-off, which is developed to be sustainable over millennial timescales, SDCs are no more than hubristic adornments at the apex of a system that’s already running out of cheap energy and starting to drown in its own effluent.

When the history of the 21st century comes to be written, SDCs will undoubtedly feature on the list of Stupidly Expensive Diversions from Attending to Real Problems.

Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

EVs and the renewable delusion

I wait for ages to read an article on my pet bugbears and then two come along at once.

Bugbear #1 is governments’ fond belief that the global auto fleet can somehow be entirely replaced with electric vehicles in the next 20 years.

Bugbear #2 is the Magical Thinking / Techno Green delusion that these billions of EVs, along with the rest of civilisation, can be sustained completely with renewable energy.

Kris de Decker dismantles the latter argument in How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone at Low Tech Magazine. Whatever way you look at it, trying to replicate the round-the-clock energy flows available from stored (fossil) sunlight using energy from current account sunlight (solar and wind) is beyond any conceivable future flow of capital.

And a pointed, if uneven, (raison d’etre does not mean ‘article of faith’) post on OilPrice.comElectric Vehicles: The High Cost Of Going Green – looks at the issue of job elimination in motor manufacturing as well as the challenges of upgrading infrastructure.

”two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built.”

Indeed. If firms cannot raise relatively modest amounts of capital to install essential capacity running proven hardware, where will the thousands of billions come from to build EVs and fleets of wind and solar farms?

Both articles veer towards a point I keep making. Liquid fossil-fuelled Happy Motoring was a one-off. High energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) fossil fuels are starting to diminish in the rear view mirror. What’s left is insufficient to maintain the global autos and transport infrastructure we built over the last century, let alone fund a multi-trillion dollar transition to renewable-powered EVs for everyone in a 30-year timeframe.

Put simply, shrinking the liquid-fossil-fuelled car fleet will shrink people’s ability to afford to make the switch to electric cars. My guess is that after a few more years of accelerating replacement of ICEs by Evs, there will be a Seneca cliff moment when sales of all types of private auto go into a steep decline.

When that happens, trucks, tractors, trains buses and ships will be where the action is. Very Victorian. But it will be a sweet thing – for a while at least – to own an electric bike shop.

Outlook’s unannounced junk mail failure

Between 60 and 100 million people use Microsoft Office 365. Back in May, Microsoft released an update that broke the junk filters on IMAP email accounts.

Office 365 users with IMAP accounts where the junk filter is set to ‘safe senders only’ are having their inboxes flooded with spam.

Microsoft has been, to say the least, backward in coming forward over its culpability. Google the issue and you’ll find plenty of MS gurus handing out pointless instructions to spam-swamped enquirers on how to check their  email settings. But you have dig much deeper to find references to the fact that MS know about all about the problem and are – apparently – working to fix it.

A curious aspect of the issue is that there hasn’t been more online agitation. True, very many 365 installations are corporate and on Exchange servers, which aren’t affected.  Perhaps the number of 365 users with IMAP accounts and tight junk settings who’re motivated to seek help or complain is small enough for MS to feel they can take their time over fixing something they broke themselves.

(Just to add insult to injury, since the faulty update, Outlook catches the first spam message after the user adjusts their junk settings – as if to say ‘look, I could do this if I wanted to’ – but then lets through every subsequent crudmail).

Why aren’t more people complaining? Have we become so inured to (a) the inescapability of spam and (b) the frequency with which obvious junk messages get past Outlook that most users just put up with it?

I’m often surprised, when I see other people’s inboxes, at how much spam they regard as normal. In most cases, setting their Outlook filter to safe senders only and ticking the ‘trust messages from my contacts’ box would clean up their inflow marvellously.

As it happens, there is a 100% effective workaround for this Outlook IMAP junk problem: roll back Office updates to May 2017. All the ‘how to’ information you need is in the comments section of the article linked at the top of this post.

Trouble is, you have to turn off automatic Office updates after rolling back or your filters will end up broken again. So,  if and when MS cure the problem, you’ll need to know to turn updates back on. It’s rumoured that the fix might be in the September 2017 update.

But since MS aren’t openly admitting that the problem exists, I’ll have to keep on hanging around in arcane corners of Microsoft.com hoping to learn of their unannounced cure for their unannounced mistake.