Driving Your Algorithm To Work
Copyright © by Len Holman, 1/28/14
Recall the movie, “I, Robot.” Recall the sleek, automated cars and
freeways, no-hands driving, parking which tucks away vehicles safely, and robots
which assist humans to supposedly be better…well, humans. Now recall
Google’s Honda, the self-driving car which the giant company is busy driving
all over hell’s half acre with no human behind the wheel. Not gonna
happen in MY lifetime, you say? It’s way too science-fiction-y to every
become a serious way to get to your work (assuming you have a job to go to).
But wait: now comes Ford, that iconic carmaker. It announced a partnership
with MIT and Stanford to develop self-driving, automated, intuitive cars.
Intuitive, as in a form of self-consciousness which rivals a wife’s suspicions
when her husband goes to the gym and starts losing weight, as when a child knows
which of his parents to ply for that toy she wants.
In his case, this intuition will come with some impressive bells,
whistles, and infrared lights. This system (called “LiDar”) will
bounce infrared light off objects as far away as two hundred feet and then—get
this—will draw a real-time 3-D map of the vicinity, but that’s only the
start. These sensors are powerful enough and sensitive enough to be able
to discern the difference between a paper bag and “a small animal.” No
word yet from the Furry Little Critter Protection Society about fine-tuning to
make the car swerve away from gerbils. Ford wants their cars do what
drivers do when they are behind a large vehicle which blocks the view ahead: maneuver
back and forth inside the lane, trying to see around.
That 3-D pic will certainly help, although on Los Angeles freeways, the
3-D will look like one massive block of unmoving stone, but no matter—it’s
the tech that counts. If the car in front of you suddenly slams on its
brakes, your vehicle would “look around” and “decide” whether it’s
safe to change lanes to avoid slamming into the back of that idiot in front of
you. In other words, when this all comes to fruition, you will drive in a
virtual space AND an actual space, being alerted to the reality around you,
using virtual reality as a guide—a surreal concept, for sure. An article
in the Los Angeles Times says this research with MIT “employs algorithms that
help the car predict where moving vehicles and pedestrians will be.”
Presumably a crystal ball wasn’t sexy enough to do the predicting, and Ford
couldn’t find enough Gypsy fortune tellers to act as passengers for its
Ford’s current vehicles can self-park (those of us old enough to
remember our first driving tests, the one to get that coveted license, will
remember with varying shades of horror and frustration, learning how to park
between two cars on a busy street. Thank you, Ford), self-drive in
slow-moving traffic (isn’t that what we already do?), and redirect drivers
around heavy traffic (no word yet on whether Ford has a cure for the drivers
merging onto freeways at sixty miles an hour while texting their friends that
the party was s-o-o rad). The final step Ford will take is to fully
automate their vehicles. OK, I’m no Luddite. I fully appreciate
not having to go down to the well to lug a couple of buckets of water up to the
cabin; I fully appreciate having a satellite dish bring me a football game; I
fully appreciate writing this on a computer. What I don’t fully
appreciate is NOT driving my car.
I don’t want a 3-D view of my driving world. I want a real-time
view of it. I didn’t spend a half-century of learning myself and my
limitations and strengths so I could let a computer decide whether to go slow or
fast, whether to go around the weaving drunk in front of me, or whether I should
sit back and read the sports page while my algorithm decides what to do.
There have more than a few problems with airline pilots who have had their
automated controls go haywire and didn’t quite know what to do. It’s
called “forgetting how to fly” by some airline pilot veterans. They
worry that the technology of airplanes is taking that very intuition and
experience Ford claims is in need of phasing out way from pilots and putting the
lives of passengers and crews at risk.
Of course, Ford says it intends, with other car manufacturers, to bring
self-driving vehicles to the road by 2020. I wonder if this is such a good
thing: recently, the upper Midwest experienced one of the worst spells of
winter in recorded history. Will algorithms prevent skidding on black ice?
Will any 3-D view of a whiteout be helpful, more helpful than some melodious
voice from the car saying gently, “Pull over, moron, I can’t see a damn
thing!” And what about those roads out there? This is not the
world Will smith drove in. It’s a world of bumpy, fractured, pot-holed,
narrow, poorly-lined, roads, filled with people driving beaters they bought in a
vacant lot from a guy wearing shades. It’s filled with people who are
struggling to find work and will not be able to afford a car which is so
high-tech, it needs to come with a hacker. There are no sensors in these
roads; there are no ways to keep someone from having too much to drink (or
smoke) from getting out on the highway; there are people living in places with
NO pavement and NO street signs of any kind.
When I first moved into my rural home, a county sheriff drove into my yard and asked me what street (actually, a dirt road) I lived on. Later in the week, I got a book from Amazon, and I asked the UPS driver if he had trouble finding my house. “No problem,” he said. So, I told my wife, if we have a crime incident, don’t call the cops, call the UPS guy. Maybe ford should use THEIR algorithm instead of MIT’s. Until the U.S. modernizes its infrastructure and gets serious about automated roads and cars, until it gets serious about automating its drivers, I’ll just climb into my old truck and drive myself.
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