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Grandpa, What’s a Drivers’ License? 

Tesla owner David Pogue evangelized for self-driving cars at last Thursday’s meeting.

Lots of people are afraid to give control of their vehicle to “a computer.” “I’m a technologist. I get that change is scary… (but) Self-driving cars will save a ton of money and a ton of lives… I don’t know exactly when, but I do know it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Pogue last spoke to us two years ago. He is a Yale graduate with a summa degree in music. He spent ten years on Broadway. He wrote numerous tech manuals. In 2000 he became the technology writer for The New York Times, moved to what were then greener pastures at Yahoo! Tech in 2014, and recently returned to the Gray Lady to write its “Crowdwise” feature for their “Smarter Living” section.

It was a refreshing to watch an entertainer give us serious information humorously.

Self-driving cars are “coming on fast,” with 40 companies around the world working on them — GM, Lyft, Ford, Uber, Tesla, and more. Nevertheless, for at least the next 50 years human driven and self-driving cars will co-exist. 

Automation is not all or nothing. Rather, the Society of Automotive Engineers has defined six levels. The base, Level Zero, is no automation. As features are added vehicles transition to Level Five, complete automation — steering wheel optional, with no human intervention at all. 

At level two the automated system takes full control, while the driver remains attentive and remains prepared to assume control. This is where already Tesla is, and what most automakers are developing.

At Level Five Pogue believes people will stop owning cars, but instead ordering a driverless and empty Uber to ferry them around. After all, he noted, 94 percent of the time our cars sit unused.

When will Level Five vehicles be available? In 2015 Elon Musk predicted by 2018, but found the goal harder than he thought. His current guess is the end of 2020, other experts say 2021 is a better bet.

As we move to Level Five vehicles parts of our society built for people as drivers are at risk: Driver education and drivers’ licenses; car insurers, whose business model will become obsolete; likewise, speed limits were designed for humans, while self-driving cars can travel at 90 miles per hour two feet apart.

So why do we need autonomous cars?

“People are the worst drivers. 100 percent of auto accidents are caused by people.” 

Globally, 1.35 million people die in motor vehicle accidents every year. But applying Tesla’s current accident rate, and with technology as it is and everyone using autopilot, 900,000 of those lives could be saved.  

Meanwhile, only five people have died in self-driving vehicle accidents. Yet the media highlights them. Human drivers are killed once every 86 million miles. Even fledgling Tesla software yielded one per 320 million miles.

A second reason is that when we have completely automated cars we’ll be able to sleep, or use our vehicle as our office. We’ll get back our time behind the wheel.

A third is that car ownership is expensive.

Tesla is today’s leader in self-driving technology. Pogue owns a Model 3, the small one, the $35,000 car, which he purchased two years ago, after two years on the waiting list. 

But he had to buy it in Mount Kisco because Connecticut’s auto dealers are “quite cozy” with state legislators. They have managed to keep the law requiring new vehicles be sold through dealers.

From a software perspective driving on a highway is pretty simple — the automated system keeps it in its lane and slows down when the car in front slows down.

The problem is not the 99.99 percent of situations. It’s the other 0.01 percent — forks in the road, animals, cars towing boats, large trucks crossing secondary highways, trash on the road — that demands continuing software development.

At the same time, self-driving trucks are becoming essential. We have a massive shortage of the undesirable job of long haul driver. Tesla’s truck will be available later this year, and there are already cabless trucks moving containers around ports. 

The industry faces the issue of liability when driverless vehicles have accidents; regulation; and fear of self-driving cars. 

Liability is complicated the need to determine who was driving, the human or the car? Manufacturers assume liability for accidents when the vehicle is in control, otherwise?

Only 21 states have regulations allowing self-driving vehicles, though none explicitly outlaws them. 

The biggest obstacle remains fear. Clearly it will take some time for people to get used to the idea. “That’s good because it will take some time for the cars to get good enough to deserve it.”

By 2021 or 2022 enough people will accept self-driving cars because the technology will be good enough. But the cars will be ready before the people are.

Photo by Sal Mollica

Roy Fuchs