Monthly Archives: May 2012

Self driving cars will be basis of future public transport

Fleets of self-driving cars will one day dominate our roads. They will greatly reduce road accidents, save many lives, be very socially inclusive and greatly improve mobility for the poor, the old and frail. They will save us money and help the environment, and provide useful synergy with the renewable energy industry. They will reduce the need for car parking and help rejuvenate our cities and towns. But, they will destroy the domestic car industry, reduce the pleasure many get from driving, and increase government’s ability to monitor and control our lives. The balance of benefits and costs as always will depend on the technical competence of our government, but only the most idiotic of governments could prevent this bringing huge benefits overall.

The state of Nevada has granted licenses for self-driving cars with California set to follow:

It is long-established in lab conditions that computers are able to drive cars, and for a few years now, Google have had experimental ones out on the streets to prove it in the real world, successfully. This extended licensing brings it close to the final hurdle. Soon, we will see lots of cars on the roads that drive themselves.

There are many obvious advantages in letting computers drive. Humans typically react at around 250ms. Some faster, some slower. That is thousands of times slower than we expect of machines. Machines can also talk to each other extremely quickly, and it would be very easy to arrange coordination of braking and acceleration among lines of cars if desired. High speed reaction and coordination allows a number of benefits:

Computer-driven cars could drive just millimetres apart. This would reduce drag, improving environmental footprint, and since there can’t be a significant speed differential, so gives very limited scope for damage if the cars collide. There can also be more lanes, since we wouldn’t need huge gasp between cars sideways because of low human skill, and lanes can be assigned for either direction of flow according to circumstances. It also increases greatly the number of cars that can fit along a stretch of road, and ensures that they can be kept moving much more smoothly. So cars could be safer and more efficient and get us there faster.

However, we only get the greatest benefits if we allow a high degree of standardisation of control systems, road management, vehicle size and speed. Drivers would have little control of their journey other than specifying destination. We could allow some freedom, but each degree of freedom reduces benefits elsewhere. Automated cars could mix with human driven ones but the humans would slow the system down and reduce road usage efficiency considerably. So we’d be far better off going the full way and phasing out human-driven cars.

If we have little control of our cars, and they are all likely to be standardised, and if they can drive themselves to you on request, and you can just abandon them once you arrive, then there is very little point in owning your own. It is extremely likely that we will move towards a system where large fleets of cars are owned and run by fleet management companies or public transport companies, and obviously these are likely to overlap considerably. This would result in better social inclusiveness. Older people who rely on public transport because they can’t drive, might also find it hard to walk to a bus stop. If a car can collect them from their front door, it would improve their ability to taker an active part in life for longer. If we don’t own our cars, and they just go off and serve someone else once we have arrived, then we won’t need as many cars, nor the need for all the parking spaces they use. We could manage with a few centralised high-efficiency storage spaces to store the surplus during low demand. All the spare car parks, garages and home driveways could be used for other things instead that would improve our life quality, such as more green areas or extra rooms in our homes, or more brown field development space.

Energy storage for wind or solar power is made easier if we have large numbers of electric cars. Even though we would eventually make direct energy pick-up in most roads, via inductive loops and super-capacitors, cars would still need small batteries once they leave the main roads. So there is good potential synergy between energy companies and car owners.

All the automation requires that the fleet companies have some sort of billing systems, so they know who has been where. This potentially also allows government to know who has been where and when, another potential erosion of  privacy. Standardisation would favour some parts of the car industry against others, but since we would need a lot fewer cars, the entire car industry would shrink. But I think these problems are not too high a price for such great benefits, in this case. Cars are essential, but they sap a great deal of our income, and if we have a better and cheaper way of meeting the same needs, then we can spend the savings on something more fruitful, and that will stimulate business elsewhere. So overall, the economy should benefit rather than suffer.

So, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and automated cars will bring a few problems, but these problems will be greatly outweighed by very large benefits. We should head down this path as fast as we can.


21st century social problems

I just updated this entry by expanding on the headings, otherwise it is still the same as it was. I’m emptying this old copy to avoid confusion. Here is the link to the new one:

Blocking Pirate Bay makes little sense Justice Arnold ruled that ISPs must block their customers from accessing Pirate Bay. Regardless of the morality or legality of Pirate Bay, forcing ISPs to block access to it will cause them inconvenience and costs, but won’t fix the core problem of copyright materials being exchanged without permission from the owners.

I have never looked at the Pirate Bay site, but I am aware of what it offers. It doesn’t host material, but allows its users to download from each other. By blocking access to the Bay, the judge blocks another one of billions of ways to exchange data. Many others exist and it is very easy to set up new ones, so trying to deal with them one by one seems rather pointless. Pirate Bay’s users will simply use alternatives. If they were to block all current file sharing sites, others would spring up to replace them, and if need be, with technological variations that set them outside of any new legislation. At best judges could play a poor catch-up game in an eternal war between global creativity and the law. Because that is what this is.

Pirate Bay can only be blocked because it is possible to identify it and put it in court. It is possible to write software that doesn’t need a central site, or indeed any legally identifiable substance. It could for example be open-source software written and maintained by evolving adaptive AI, hidden behind anonymity, distributed algorithms and encryption walls, roaming freely among web servers and PCs, never stopping anywhere. It could be untraceable. It could use combinations of mobile or fixed phone nets, the internet, direct gadget-gadget comms and even use codes on other platforms such as newspapers. Such a system would be dangerous to build from a number of perspectives, but may be forced by actions to close alternatives. If people feel angered by arrogance and greed, they may be pushed down this development road. The only way to fully stop such a system would be to stop communication.

The simple fact is that technology that we depend on for most aspects of our lives also makes it possible to swap files, and to do so secretly as needed. We could switch it off, but our economy and society would collapse. To pretend otherwise is folly. Companies that feel abused should recognise that the world has moved on and they need to adapt their businesses to survive in the world today, not ask everyone to move back to the world of yesterday so that they can cope. Because we can’t and shouldn’t even waste time trying to. My copyright material gets stolen frequently. So what? I just write more. That model works fine for me. It ain’t broke, and trying to fix it without understanding how stuff works won’t protect anyone and will only make it worse for all of us.