The Coming Robot Revolution, Part One: Driverless Cars

It is time to start writing on this blog again. All of my blogging energy has gone into, and now that Mags and I have decided to settle down in Nevada City, California, it is time to do more writing, which is more what this blog is about.

Lately, I have been thinking more and more about the coming advances in robot and artificial intelligence technologies, and how much change these advances will bring about in our economy, transportation systems, and personal lives. My thinking has been stimulated and prompted by a piece by 60 Minutes on robots in the workplace, and a series of articles in Forbes about the Google Driverless Cars.

I think it is most clear what the impacts of the Google Driverless Cars will be, and that is the subject of this first post. Very quickly, this new technology will turn every part of our transportation system on its head.

First and foremost, in most respects driverless cars will be a huge boon to street safety for all users. Collisions between two driverless cars will be virtually non-existent, as the cars will be in constant communication with each other. The algorithms and sensors controlling the cars will have much quicker reaction times and much lower error rate than any human driver.

These algorithms will be required to follow all traffic laws. This will be a huge plus for all sorts of streets, but especially in cities. As a cyclist, I look forward to the days when cars will properly yield and merge, and not double park.

Even for the clueless, iPhone-wielding pedestrian will driverless cars be a great advance in safety. Even the best algorithms and sensors can’t bring a car to a dead stop in no time, but a driverless car could begin perfect evasive and slowing maneuvers the second a pedestrian steps into the road. This extra half second and use of perfect technique will avoid many collisions with all road users, no matter who is at fault, and when collisions do occur they will be much less likely to be fatal.

Perhaps the greatest advance in street safety will be the elimination of drunk driving. There will still be plenty of dolts who decide to drive themselves home when they have a driverless car option, but most drunks will opt to let the car drive them home. Drunk driving is a huge problem, as we all know, and I think it is a problem that will eventually be close to eliminated.

The entire car ownership model will be turned on its head. Many people will choose out of habit or pride to still own their own car, driverless or not, but more and more people will realize the great economic benefit of simply renting a driverless car on demand, paid hourly and/or by the mile. If you live in a city or suburb, you will be able to request a car to pick you up, and a car without anyone in it will drive itself to your front door within minutes. Most people will opt for this option over owning their own car, especially young people and city dwellers.

With near perfect utilization of a fleet of driverless cars, many fewer cars will need to be produced. This will be a giant shock wave to the auto industry. The vehicle fleet will eventually fall to 10% of what it is today, since cars will rarely be vacant, save for the times like 3am when most people don’t want to go anywhere anyway. This change alone will be disruptive to many economies, especially the United States, Japan, and Germany. A smart auto maker will realize this change is inevitable and get out ahead of the change. Half or more of current auto makers will fold within the next few decades as demand vanishes.

With far fewer cars sitting idle, giant parking lots will become a thing of the past, as will many areas of street parking. This will be a great thing for bicycle infrastructure, sidewalk widening, and using old parking lots for things like parks and public gardens. This will also cause business real estate prices to drop, as many huge parking lots will now be open to development for business use. Indeed, even streets themselves will be able to be significantly narrowed as driverless cars will be able to follow each other with just inches to spare. This narrowing and removal of car travel lanes will present even more opportunities for more sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure.

Again, driving will be much more efficient, and I mean an improvement by leaps and bounds. Gone will be the days of constant traffic jams due to irrational driving behavior, collisions, and inefficient use of road surfaces. Because driverless cars will be in constant communication with each other, they can follow each other within inches, braking instantly as needed, and gaining a huge boost in wind drag efficiency due to drafting. This huge increase in efficiency will make our current freeways look downright silly as most of the road surface will be completely empty while other parts will be crammed with cars safely going 100 miles per hour. Rather than our current ridiculous trend of widening freeways, we’ll actually contract them and save bundles on maintenance costs.

As you will be able to instantly get a personal vehicle sent to your location at any time, equipped with a computerized chauffeur, public transit will go through a huge change. Many public bus lines will be eliminated, and where they are kept the drivers will be replaced by computers and sensors. Some people will have their driverless car memberships subsidized by local government so the costs to them will be comparable to their current subsidized transit passes.

Other types of transit will show resiliency as they offer speed advantages over cars with rubber tires on asphalt and cement. Airplanes and eventually high-speed rail will be used when you need to get somewhere more quickly or more comfortably than a driverless car can get you there. However, routes like San Francisco to Los Angeles will greatly shrink as people can do the route in 3.5 hours using a driverless car at 100 miles per hour, without having to deal with the indignities and delays of airports. Air travel and high-speed rail will mostly be used for trips of 500 miles and more, and of course trips across the oceans. I don’t see good local trains and subways going away any time soon, as in many cases they are already such a fast and efficient way to travel.

Even many of our errands will be turned on their heads. You’ll be able to place an order on the web to the grocery store, and a car with no one in it will arrive at your house at the appointed time with your order. Your package deliveries will also arrive in a driverless vehicle at appointed times. A driverless car will arrive to take kids to school.

Taxi drivers will of course resist this entire endeavor, and of course I feel for them. But, honestly, resistance is futile. It is not a matter of if the taxi driver profession will be almost entirely wiped out, but simply a question of when.

Unfortunately, with the increases in efficiency, cost, speed, and convenience, many people will actually increase the amount of time they spend in cars. People won’t mind living two hours away from their job as much when they can work, read, eat, and drink from their moving car. Unfortunately this all equates to more time people will spend sitting on their asses, increasing incidences of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Driverless cars will be the push that electric cars needed. When it is a computer rather than a human worrying about how, when, and where to charge, many companies will make the switch. Gasoline combustion engines will still have a significant role for longer trips, but for shorter trips electric cars will rule the day. This will be a significant advance in air quality and engine noise.

However, another form of noise will surely increase: that of cars moving at 100 miles per hour regardless of any engine noise. This background “wooshing” noise can travel for many miles, and I think it will increase as there are more cars moving at a faster speed at any given time.

Google already has working prototypes of the driverless car, and I think within three to five years we will start seeing them on the roads. In that time frame they may still be out of reach for most private owners, but they will start to be used for car sharing, where people can share the costs of these expensive cars, currently estimated to cost $300,000. The car sharing model will be the one that eventually comes to dominate, anyway. Costs for these cars will rapidly fall until they start to approach the price of current human-operated cars, and as the prices fall these things will really start to take off. I feel that most people have no idea what huge changes in transportation are on the horizon but soon enough everyone will know about it.

Despite this lengthy blog post detailing the many changes I expect to see, I am not necessarily a full advocate of driverless cars; I just think that these changes are inevitable. Overall, I think the changes will be a net positive over our current transportation system, mostly due to the huge advances in street safety for all users. However, we need to be aware of the significant drawbacks, some of which I have addressed above.

The biggest downside I see to driverless cars is that it will make it much more tempting to not engage in active transportation. Cycling, walking, and combining these modes with public transportation are currently attractive to many people because of the cost and convenience compared to private automobile ownership, especially in cities. As using driverless cars becomes inexpensive enough, many people will start to use the service and miss out on the significant health benefits that active transportation provides. In fact, I think cyclists and walkers will increasingly be seen as quaint and behind the times. The social and economic pressures to travel by driverless car will be great.

People who choose to not own a cell phone will probably be left in the dust, as they will be needed to get picked up anywhere you don’t have access to a computer.

As people are no longer in control of their own motion, they will lose touch with their sense of direction, even more than they already have with smart phones and GPS. People will lose the sense of connectedness of places as they will pay less attention to the geography between points A and B.

As active transportation decreases and public transportation shrinks, we will become more atomized as individuals than we already are. When you get picked up and dropped off door-to-door in an encapsulated vehicle, you interact less with people. The driverless deliveries will have the same effect as you no longer interact with people at the grocery store. However, you may be able to easily choose to carpool in a driverless car which would increase your interaction with people.

As it stands now, the easiest way to limit the adverse effects of car culture for yourself is to simply not own a car. It is a big, expensive decision to own a car and therefore you can easily stick with your original decision to not do so. However, when a car lifestyle is a simple web form and $50 membership fee away, it will be much more difficult to remain true to your decision to not own a car.

There will be impediments to the widespread adoption of the driverless car. These impediments will come in the form of cultural resistance, mostly from conservatives, resistance from the auto industry, and from lawmakers scared of change. These impediments are real, but at most they will slow but not stop the driverless car. Resistance is futile, for better or for worse.

Price of Oil

Holy crap, oil is $138/barrel? Times, they are a-changin’. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they or someone they know is now taking public transportation where they would previously drive. And GM may stop making Hummers. The high price of oil, while painful in the short term for many, will have a positive effect in the long run.

I wonder, if oil prices stay high and people continue to take public transit, if many people who previously were on the other side of the argument will now argue in favor of expanded public transportation. I would love to see that happen.


I was thinking about making a short trip to Davis to see my buddy William sometime soon. Public transportation isn’t the easiest thing when you start heading too far east of San Francisco, so it would require a car. Now that I don’t have a car, I’d have to rent one. City CarShare wouldn’t work; it is meant for local trips, so they charge you $0.44/mile plus an hourly charge. That won’t work well for a long trip.

I have always thought that car rental places are too expensive. I figured that one reason for this is because you always get a new car. Why do I need a new car? I don’t. Today, I happened to stumble across Rent-A-Wreck. They rent used cars at discount prices. Sounds good to me. I just did a search, and I can rent a car for $24 from Rent-A-Wreck. The lowest price I can get on Expedia is $35.

Of course there might still be the under-25 fee from Rent-A-Wreck, which I find silly, but that is another discussion.

News and Notes

I think once or twice, I have started a blog post in this fashion. I think I have a lot of things almost worth saying, but nothing that is worthy of its own post. So I just start slamming my thoughts all into one post. Anyway, here goes:

I posted my car for sale on Craigslist. I hope it sells soon. Because when it does, I am going to buy a mountain bike and maybe a new laptop. Also, I can “move on.”

I really get a great feeling out of doing something correctly. I usually can’t do something correctly if I am rushed. So I have learned to not even try, sometimes, if I am going to be rushed. Today with my car, I was able to take my time and get this first part done right. I double parked in front of my apartment to take all of my belongings from the car to the apartment. Then I drove it down Van Ness to get it washed. $50 + $10 tip. Worth it for a good detail. I then drove it back to my garage and took about 40 or so pictures. You can see them here. Posted on craigslist…and now I just have to hope it will sell. Actually, if I don’t hear from someone by tonight, I will post on eBay or the paper or But the great thing is that my legwork is done. At this point, almost all my work can be done from a desk.

Moving on…Alyssa and I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” on Saturday night down at Santana Row in San Jose. It was a great movie. Gore covered everything: past, present, and future of the effects of global warming. past, present, and future of what is being done to prevent global warming. I think that a lot of “issue” movies miss out on at least a few of those things.

I was honestly pretty amazed at the scope of our current problem. I didn’t realize that we were already so far in the deep end. But that doesn’t much change my outlook. I was already on Gore’s side, at least I would like to think, when it comes to the environment. One thing I would like to do, however, is take a look through the Gore-debunkers’ arguments just to see if they have any substance to them.

I sometimes think that I am a bit too exposed to the liberal viewpoint of things and not exposed enough to the conservative viewpoint. And even if someone is a complete liar, you can still learn a lot from listening to them.

On the way back to the city on Saturday night, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh. I have always thought that the guy spouted complete nonsense, but I gave him another chance. He failed. He spouted complete nonsense (except for one small rant he had about a Walmart issue). But even so, it was good to listen to him because so many other people soak this crap up, and it is good to know what the talking points from the other side are.

The same theory goes with reading almost all newspapers. Even if you think that they are completely controlled by corporate America, you can still learn what corporate America wants you to think. And that is very valuable.

Moving on (again)…I am currently reading ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman. I can’t really say that this book is a great read. But it is great in the fact that the main idea is so new to me, and it has gotten me thinking a lot. The main ideas are that workers are “wage slaves.” This means that they have the freedom not to work, but they will starve if they don’t. And they are being stolen from by the capitalists – they get paid much less than their work is actually worth. This is evidenced by the fact that there is so much excess capital to go to those at the top – those who did no actual work. I can’t really say that I disagree with any of this. But at the same time, a lot of what he says is stated as fact, when indeed it could use a lot of supporting evidence. I cannot complain about this too much, however, since this is indeed supposed to be an introductory book to anarchism. I would very much like to read more on the subject after reading this book.

One way that these ideas are applied to real life is by thinking that – remember that guy that cut you off today? That was horrible, wasn’t it? Well where were you coming from when he cut you off? You were coming home from work. Your workplace where you spent 8 hours getting stolen from. So, yeah, that guy that cut you off wasn’t very nice. But if we’re going to get mad at someone, why are we going to get mad at that guy? Get mad at those who are stealing your hard work.

Having said that…I would not say that I am an anarchist. I will have to read a lot more on the subject before that previous paragraph becomes something that I would care to defend fully. The field of Economics is pretty much the enemy of anarchism – I’ll have to do a bit of reading on that as well.

Bye Bye, Beautiful Car

I was reading an article yesterday on high-speed rail in California (still just a dream, by the way), when I realized how insane it was for me to own a car. It costs me over $800/month to own my car in the city:
$300 car payment
$300 garage payment
$150 car insurance (even though I have a clean driving record *shakes fist*)
$50 gas (conservative estimate)

And this doesn’t even take into account repairs.

So it looks like I will probably sell my car very shortly here. I am not completely sure I am going to do this yet, but I am about 90% sure. Thankfully I live in what is considered “downtown,” so there is great bus access right near my place. And since I live downtown, groceries are just a walk down the street, as is drinking. So here is what I would do for transportation in lieu of a car:
– SF MUNI bus for going to work, EFF, Best Buy, other not-too-far-away city places
– Caltrain for going to places south of San Francisco
– walking for things that I already do (no-brainer)
– a new Trek bike for medium trips during the day when it doesn’t involve carrying much
City Car Share for when I need a car. They have a few different models, and plenty of parking spots (where they store the cars) throughout the city. One of them is five blocks away (right near where I currently park my car) and one is just a few more blocks away than that. I would look forward to driving the Scion, Prius, and Civic Hybrid.

I think the biggest thing holding me back is that I love my car and I love driving a fast car. But I don’t think this is a good enough reason to spend $800/month. I have been thinking a lot about all the toys I could buy with that amount 🙂

And I also think that if I got rid of my car, I’d get part of my soul back. I think we all have our concepts of “how the world should be,” and in my world I see a lot less cars and a lot more public transit. So I’ll be one more bus-riding bum, very slightly growing the demand for expanded public transportation.

New Civic Si

I have been having car problems recently, so I decided to treat myself to a new car. I’ve never actually bought a new car, only used. Anyway, I will spare you all the boring story. Here are the pictures of my new Honda Civic Si:


197 horsepower. 0 – 60 in 6.9 seconds. Slalom as fast as the $86,000 Dodge Viper. Yay.