Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Next Revolution

As a computer programmer, I have always had a fascination with teaching computers to perform amazing things. Specifically, teaching computers to replicate tasks that humans can perform. This includes tasks such as deep learning neural networks and my current interest: computer vision. With this as my background, it was with great excitement that I followed the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 & 2005. The Department of Defense was offering a $1 million prize to anyone that could develop an autonomous vehicle that could drive a set course set through the Mohave desert. No vehicle completed the challenge in 2004, but in 2005 four teams completed the course in the allotted time. This was a huge breakthrough in robotics and got the engineering and business community to start taking autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) seriously. When I was a kid in the 1970's I remember my dad telling me in the future cars would drive themselves. I couldn't imagine how they would work, but my dad explained that we would lay cables in the roads and the cars would follow the cables. Of course! But would we really put cables in all the roads? That would require a massive undertaking. A few years later I read an article (Popular Science I believe) that scientists in California had embedded some cables in a road and were testing this exact idea. But this seemed such a complicated way of going about this, but no one (well, not me anyway) was imagining that 30 years later we could write computer programs that could see the world around the vehicle and learn how to drive safely through the world just like a human.

A number of people working on the DARPA Grand Challenge vehicles were soon hired by Google and a few years later shocked the world by demonstrating they already had an autonomous vehicle driving around California roads. At the same time, road cars were already getting adaptive cruise control with limited lane following features and GPS mapping was included in nearly every car sold. As I write this in 2015, nearly every car manufacturer is working on autonomous driving features for their cars and it is believed that fully autonomous cars will be available for purchase within two years. Tesla has already updated its fleet of Model S sedans (well, those that can support it) with an advanced cruise control that can follow lanes on the freeway.

For quite awhile I have been thinking about the implications of autonomous vehicles and I believe they are about to cause the next great revolution and forever change how we live. Below is a list some of the big changes I believe will happen as a result of this technology and why it is a revolution and not a gimmick.


This is the topic most people are focused on right now and are using as the selling point for autonomous vehicles. The naysayers will say that they can't trust a computer, but can you really say you can trust humans either? Autonomous vehicles will continue to learn and can only get better, whereas humans are limited in their capabilities and make mistakes. Machines never get tired. They don't get intoxicated. They don't have bad days at work. They aren't distracted. In fact, humans barely notice what's going around them compared to an autonomous vehicle which can see every single thing happening around it hundreds of times per second. A machine has split second reaction times. When all cars are autonomous, they can communicate with one another and warn each other of road conditions. Accidents and injuries to humans will soon be a thing of the past. When this happens, cars will be built without safety equipment. No more heavy crash structures, restraint systems, or airbags. You'll be able to move freely throughout the vehicle. Want privacy, just close the curtains on the windows.


At first, insurance will get complicated. Who is to blame when there is an accident? To get this technology off its' feet, the manufacturer's are already stating they will accept liability in case of accidents. As cars become more and more autonomous, the need for insurance is going to diminish because of the previous point: autonomous cars will reach a point of no accidents. There will still be “recreational vehicles” in the foreseeable future that are human driven for fun though probably not allowed on freeways. As autonomous vehicles reach a majority, human driven cars will take the brunt of liability insurance it will become too costly for humans to drive cars on public roads and driving a car will become of memory.


When all the cars on the road are autonomous, the rules of the road change. In fact, rules exist to make people play well with each other. Machines need a smaller set of rules. Autonomous vehicles will drive at higher speed on long roads. They can drive close together in packs to reduce wind drag and increase energy efficiency. They can negotiate intersections safely without the need for stop signs and red lights. Without human drivers, traffic jams will be a thing of the past. The cars will know the road conditions at all times and can route around troublesome areas. As safety equipment and human controls are removed from cars, they will become increasingly lighter weight and more energy efficient. Travel time will reduce dramatically for many people. Traffic will no longer make you late. No more road rage and being angry at other drivers. Since you don't need to drive, you can also use your time more efficiently. Start getting stuff done for work, or read that novel you've been enjoying, or catch up with some shows on Netflix. No more sitting for hours behind the steering wheel going nowhere.


Driving a car is a great pastime for may of us, myself included. It's not going to be nice losing the ability to drive our cars anymore and some people aren't going to take this sitting down. But autonomous vehicles are going to open up vast vistas of travel to many people that could have never hoped to drive a car. People with disabilities and the elderly who can no longer safely operate a vehicle will suddenly have the opportunity to travel at any time to go anywhere. For years, I have thought about how horrible it's going to be when I get older and my driver's license gets taken away and I can no longer be independent. But now, I'm excited knowing that by the time I'm too old to drive, autonomous vehicles will be commonplace. Have you been alone and felt ill and were unable to drive yourself to the doctor's office? No problem now. Do you have car trouble? Pull to the side of the road where another car picks you up within minutes and you continue your trip. If the autonomous vehicle senses an issue with the car, it can take itself to the shop.


This is where the true revolution begins. When you stop and think about modern society, you begin to realize how insane we are. We all own cars. Yet how often do we drive them? I drive 10 to 15 minutes to work, where my car then sits in a huge parking lot all day, then I drive 10 or 15 minutes back home, where it then sits in a purpose-built garage in my house. So, on a given workday, my car is parked 98% of them time! Every member of my household has his/her own car. All of my neighbors have cars. I look down the street and there are two to three cars in every driveway. With autonomous vehicles, sharing cars is simple, and they never need to park. Imagine every single car can be shared and we not responsibilities of ownership. If I need a ride anywhere, there will always be a car somewhere in the vicinity. We've had this with limited availability already with taxis, and recently with private drivers through Uber, and numerous car sharing businesses. But with all these current systems, the inventory of cars is limited and getting a ride is still a waiting game. When every car is shared, things change radically. You just tap a button on your smartphone and the closest car picks you up and takes you where ever you want to go. My office will now have grassy parks instead of parking lots. When I go Christmas shopping I don't need to circle the mall for 45 minutes trying a find a space to park. I no longer drive to long-term parking at the airport and then ride the bus to the terminal. No more parking fees. No more stashing Quarters in the car for parking meters. The autonomous cars will most likely be all electric, such as Teslas, so they can charge themselves when needed. No more range anxiety with an autonomous electric vehicle. When the battery starts getting low, the car can stop for a charge and you can switch to a freshly charged car that is waiting for you. After 200 to 300 miles, you need to stretch your legs anyway. Finally, when car ownership is removed from the equation, so is car theft.


If cars can drive themselves, then they can do some tasks without a human at all. Package and mail delivery won't need a human driver anymore and can happen 24 hours a day. Did you buy too much stuff at Home Depot? Load up 3 cars or trucks with everything you bought and send them to your house where they'll be waiting when you get home. Your friend who lives 20 minutes away wants to borrow something from you, so you toss it in a car and the car drives it to their house. It doesn't even need to drive back. Want to go for a long hike, have a car drop you off at the trailhead and have it, or another car, waiting for you 10 miles away at the other end of the trail. Going for a nice walk and it suddenly starts to rain? Grab your phone and call the closest car to come rescue you and get you home. As the cars get more intelligent, they'll predict your patterns and they'll be waiting for you after work. They'll be lined up at the grocery store waiting in the check out lines. Your child gets out of school at 2:30 but you can't leave work to pick him up? Have an autonomous car pick him up. The possibilities are endless when you start thinking about it.

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That is my vision of the near future. No more car ownership, no more parking lots, no more insurance, and no more accidents. A car picks you up, drops you off, then repeats this with the next person who needs a ride. With cars getting maximum use, the number of cars manufactured will drop a hundred-fold. We just pay for the time or mileage we travel. Anyone at any age or physical ability can get a ride. I will miss driving my car, but I also can't wait for all the new possibilities this will bring! And the most amazing thing is I don't think we need to wait long. The first steps of this vision are already starting and in ten years we will be 50% of the way there. Approaching the final goal of 100% autonomous vehicles could take significantly longer, but once we reach a tipping point, legislation could make it happen even sooner.

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