Maya Angelou died last Wednesday.
Then Google unveiled a prototype of its first true driverless vehicle. So it’s kind of a wash, at least to the tech media whose breathless coverage is starting to get embarrassing. Even Alan Kornheiser of Princeton is getting worked up. His usual “Hmmm…” has turned into a enthusiastic “Well…”
Whoa whoa whoa! Settle down, big guy. Two “hats off”? Really? Is this Alan or Tony Kornheiser writing?
His short commentary is pretty typical of the coverage. Start with an excessive congratulations to Google for changing the world. Somewhere around the second paragraph mention that it only goes 25 miles per hour. Fail to mention that there’s a different self driving car with no steering wheel for sale, right now. Pretend that they’ll test this on streets when it’s actually illegal most places. Wrap with a cute anecdote.
The car will be powered by electricity and could go about 100 miles before charging. Its shape suggests a rounded-out Volkswagen Beetle – something that might move people around a corporate campus or congested downtown – with headlights and sensors arrayed to resemble a friendly face.
If they want cute, they should have just gone ahead and automated the dog van from Dumb and Dumber.
Here’s an artist’s rendering of the car. I don’t know why Google commissioned a drawing when it actually exists, but whatever.
On to the criticisms. While many in the media were surprised at the announcement, most industry watchers have been predicting for awhile that the first “Level 4” fully autonomous vehicles would be light-weight, low-speed vehicles used on private property such as airports, theme parks, and college campuses. Autonomous tech is good on freeways, but have trouble predicting behaviors of other vehicles/debris/animals in the 5 or 6 seconds required to come to a stop. Urban environments are much more complex, but the car’s behavior in an emergency is not: just stop. At 25 miles per hour, it can virtually guarantee safety.
It also shouldn’t be much of a surprise since a French company sells the exact same vehicle right now:
The vehicle is sold by a small company called Induct since January, retailing at 170,000 euros or dollars, whichever is less I think. But good luck finding any acknowledgement of this achievement in any Google coverage. ratpag suspects that’s because it looks too much like a golf cart, whereas Google’s resembles something more sophisticated:
CNN goes on to describe Google’s benevolence.
The cars’ speed for now has been capped at 25 mph, allowing engineers to minimize the risk of crashes during testing.
See, they could go much faster, but this allows them to minimize risk of crashing. Yes, it’s not like the drivers have to routinely take over driving, even during pre-planned media-demos on fixed routes at low-speeds.
See it’s a conservative takeover. There’s three more paragraphs of the engineer’s excusing the behavior and insisting that the car would have done the right thing had it been given time. They even call the reporter back the next day just to clarify.
Google’s always had a weird definition of safety. These are the same guys who claim that because their cars accelerate more smoothly, that makes them safer. Yes, right, that’s why 90-year-olds in Buicks are so safe when they take 10 minutes to roll up to a stop light. Any car is safer when you have a sober, paid, trained crew of two drivers monitoring systems at all times. ratpag’s not even mentioning the other instance from the same ride-along where the car got confused at some traffic cones and just stopped. Don’t worry, the engineers insisted, we’ll just fix this in the code and it will never happen again.
Finally, is the car even legal? Every reporter at re/code seems to have forgotten to ask. There was some discussion that this qualifies as neighborhood electric vehicle, which requires a driver’s license. Also Medford seemed to suggest in an interview that they would follow the new DMV autonomous testing guidelines that require a steering wheel. So the promotional video with blind and pre-teens riding around is not happening on public roads anytime soon, and the steering wheel is coming right back. This is just like the time they released the first video of the blind guy which was also illegal and had to have a police escort.
Then Ron Medford just spouts gibberish. Watch him awkwardly dodge this question:
Alexis Madrigal: What kinds of regulatory changes do you need to be able to operate these vehicles without controls?
The hyperlink came from the original article here. Did you know the Atlantic uses RapGenius to add footnotes to articles!
ratpag has talked long enough. The point is that if you’re cute, the rules don’t apply, safety can be re-defined, and no one will bother to ask follow-up questions.