Has the Driverless Future arrived?

Ten days ago, journalist Ed Niedermeyer became one of the first people to have a trip in a genuinely driverless car on public roads without a nervous company demanding a non-disclosure agreement. Niedermeyer is no self-driving cheerleader. His work is well-researched, balanced and detached from the hype. My guess is that Waymo asked him as a display of their self-confidence.

There are currently hundreds of Waymo cars moving around the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, with thousands more on the way. The driverless future, it seems, is already here. Except that it isn’t. This technology is not an iPhone. It cannot just be bought and used. While for a few people in a limited area it may already be a reality, for most people in most places it will remain an impossibility for the foreseeable future. The people developing the tech are keen on announcing breakthroughs, which give some narrative zing to a story that has over the last year become a bit flat.

Oliver Cameron, the CEO of Voyage, is developing self-driving technology in a unique context. His vehicles are shuttling retirees on private roads around their purpose-built community – The Villages – in Florida.

I have admired Cameron since I heard him emphasise the value of a slow, responsible approach to technology development here. He has just published a discussion of what he sees as Waymo’s Rubicon-crossing ‘insane step forward’.

He thinks ‘we now live in a driverless world’. I’m worried he might believe it.

William Gibson had an adage:

‘The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

Technological determinists like to invoke it when they claim new technologies are inevitable and just around the corner. They rarely acknowledge that the distribution of new technologies is perpetually uneven. Technologies tend in fact to follow what Robert Merton called the Matthew Effect: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.

Cameron knows that getting a self-driving car to work requires means getting the conditions right as well as smartening up the sensors and the software. Self-driving cars are unavoidably contextual. When talking about the progress of self-driving technology, Cameron is right to say ‘It’s a matter of where, not when’. There are circumstances in which the driverless future has been with us for a while. In London, the Docklands Light Railway was christened in 1987. It is relatively uninteresting because the conditions under which its automation works are so tightly constrained.

The future has arrived. (Credit: Flickr user SV1XV)

Waymo’s world is vastly more complex than the DLR’s, but it remains geofenced. The cars work because they know the roads and they know what to expect. Take a Waymo outside Phoenix and it becomes just another minivan. To get a genuine sense of the future, we need to ask why Waymo is in Phoenix, work out the conditions for the technology’s success (economic, political, meteorological, infrastructural and cultural) and ask where next? There will be places with wildly different conditions in which driverless technology will necessarily look very different, and countless more where the incentives for innovation will never line up.  

The definition and distribution of futures will not be straightforward. Cameron expects public scrutiny and does not shy away from it:  

‘There will likely be companies who abuse their responsibility to deploy this technology responsibly, making short-term decisions that may compromise safety.’

Following the recent revelations about the Uber crash (see my tweet thread is below), one can see the reputational risk.

However, if Voyage, Waymo and other developers want to innovate responsibly, they shouldn’t swallow their own exhaust. One can understand why innovators tell themselves

‘Fully self-driving technology is right… Fully self-driving technology is necessary.’

But they shouldn’t expect everyone else to agree. Public resistance may not be ‘a natural cycle that will one day pass’, as Cameron hopes. The futures that most of us experience will look very different from the ones imagined by technologists. They always are.

Calculating route

A public consultation on self-driving cars has raised important and challenging questions, says Jack Stilgoe (reprinted from Research Fortnight’s Political Science blog)

The hype surrounding self-driving cars is huge, and not entirely unjustified. There are big potential benefits for safety, efficiency, mobility and access, but they won’t come without careful policy design. If we don’t get the governance right, we could end up with more congestion, less liveable cities and new dangers.

Much of the excitement has so far revolved around artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars offer a real-world test case for the powers of machine learning. But the issues are much more than technical ones.

If the technology is going to learn to drive, it needs to be tested on actual roads. Self-driving cars therefore involve the public display of innovation, with developers using roads as their laboratories.

The UK government recognises the scale of opportunities and potential risks, which is why it commissioned the world’s first large-scale, in-depth public dialogue to investigate the hopes, concerns and questions about connected and autonomous vehicles.

In conversation

The exercise was initiated by Sciencewise, the government’s public dialogue agency, and I was lucky to be part of the team that designed and ran it. The full report was released on 10 October.

George Freeman, member of parliament for Mid Norfolk and holder of the newly created ministerial post for transport technology and innovation, has discussed the findings in the New Statesman. Unsurprisingly, he accentuates the positive.

He’s right that there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities, but that’s not the whole story. Policymakers still have a lot of work to do if the technology is going to be broadly acceptable.

The dialogue exercise took place in five UK locations, over three days between October and December 2018. At each location, around 30 members of the public, chosen to be as diverse as possible, heard about self-driving cars, spoke to experts and, in some places, had a hands-on—or rather, hands-off—experience in a prototype or a simulator. Their conclusions, priorities and questions offer a blueprint for governance.

Until now, when ordinary people have been asked what they think of self-driving cars, they have in most cases been treated as potential consumers. Instead, we treated them as citizens.

Who’s driving?

Participants quickly grasped that the issues were not just to do with how safe the technology would be, or how it should deal with so-called ‘trolley problems’ involving choices between doing different types and degree of harm.

They wondered how, if the technology was going to be as transformative as the car was in the 20th century, our worlds and lives might change. They saw enormous potential benefits in providing mobility to old or disabled people—but they also worried if these opportunities would be available to all, or if the technology would follow the money and only be an option for rich people.

People recognised the safety benefits, but they also demanded government oversight so that, as well as competing, developers shared information and developed standards. There were concerns about control—not just giving up the steering wheels of their beloved cars, but also giving up control of their mobility.

They didn’t want to be hostages to big technology companies. One participant in my group said: “Cars were liberating for the workings classes and older people. This seems to be restricting choice.” Another asked: “What if someone doesn’t want a driverless car?”

There was an ambivalence that is typical for new technologies: “It will be for the greater good, but it worries me. I don’t know if I personally can make all the changes required to adapt to this world.”

Discussions boiled down to four big questions: Will the technology be safe? Will it be available to all? Who will be in control? And how do we get to a future with self-driving vehicles on the road?

How should policymakers make sense of this? It’s not easy. The will of the people is never as clear as some would like to make out. But the UK government has an opportunity.

Our economy is no longer beholden to powerful car manufacturers. Policymakers see the opportunities in software, rather than hardware, given the strength of the UK’s science base. And the UK has an enviable track record for good governance of complex scientific and technological issues.

Public deliberation is a vital part of the story. We shouldn’t see it as an endorsement or a veto of particular technological options. Instead, we should see it as the start of a genuine collaboration between innovation and regulation.