The science column in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty, is always entertaining and informative. In the May-June issue, the authors write about "Robots on the Road." In other words, the very-near-future advent of the self-driving car. Doherty reports on his experience of riding in such a car at the Google research facility. It differs radically from a conventional car at first glance, having no steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal. The vehicle demonstrated its ability to avoid a pedestrian, a bicycle, and another car. The current "street-safe" model does have steering wheel, etc., so the human driver can take over if necessary. The ultimate goal is to produce autonomous cars that "talk" to each other, to pedestrians' cell phones, and to the road infrastructure itself. Among other questions about unanticipated consequences of populating the highways with autonomous cars, the article speculates on energy use. Will more people choose to travel by car if they can relax and watch cat videos instead of driving? On the other hand, these cars should be more fuel-efficient than conventional ones, so maybe the overall result of the change will be "a wash." Then there are the ethical problems: If a crash can't be avoided, what should the robot car be programmed to hit? An animal or another car? A concrete pillar (injuring or possibly killing the rider) or a flock of pedestrians?
Like any other emergent technology, autonomous cars will pass through a transition stage when the new technology shares the environment with the old. It seems to me that this period, just before the "tipping point," will be the time of greatest hazard. When all the vehicles on the road are self-driving, with no human error to worry about, we should be much safer. If I live so long, I'll be glad to relax and enjoy the ride. During the transition, I'm not so sure.
Speaking of autonomous machines, Bill Nye the Science Guy has a fun new series, BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD (available on Netflix). The third episode (I think) focuses on Artificial Intelligence—its current status, future prospects, and potential benefits and risks. Is a "smart" thermostat true AI? What about the personal assistant that talks to you on your cell phone? Could the entire Internet become a sentient being (or is it one already, and we just aren't aware of it)? How about those self-driving cars that communicate with each other and make decisions independent of human intervention?
In addition to "robot" ground vehicles, a Google-supported startup is also working on a flying car—sort of; it looks and performs more like an ultralight airplane:Flying Car
According to this article, the FAA has approved the craft for use in "uncongested areas." The page doesn't say how that term is defined. Operators won't need a pilot's license, which sounds to me like an invitation to disaster. Consider all the accidents that happen on the roads daily, and imagine all those drivers moving in three dimensions. Of course, for the foreseeable future such vehicles will be so expensive we can't expect to see many of them around, fortunately.
For futuristic personal transportation, I'll take the driverless car (when it's perfected) over the human-piloted flying car, thanks.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt