The “Self-Driving Car” is Only an Oxymoron

Note that this “driverless car,” like all “driverless cars” now on the road, has a driver. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….(Wikimedia Photo)

Over at Tesla, Google, and Uber — and now the contagion has reached Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and beyond — the smartest guys in the room are talking autonomous vehicles. Over at every hedge fund, venture-capital and wealth-management shop in the universe, the smartest guys in the room are throwing money at the concept. Why? Because it’s the Next Big Thing, that’s why. Billions of dollars are in play.

Which is why we are seeing an avalanche of faux-news stories about the coming era of driverless cars, how they’re on the streets now, how well they are doing in testing, how soon there will be nothing but driverless cars on all our roads. And all this chum in the financial water has served its purposes: the hedge fund sharks, and the Masters of the Universe they serve, are in a feeding frenzy; and the gullible public is giddy with anticipation.

Meanwhile people with a lick of common sense are saying, wait a minute, doesn’t this sound oxymoronic, like clean coal, or safe sex? In today’s world, people with licks of common sense do not get funding to answer their questions, and therefor the skeptical questions you might have about “driverless cars” are almost unanswerable. Until right now, right here:

Is there such a thing as a “driverless car?” Not yet, there isn’t. The conditions for allowing “driverless cars” on the public roads in a few states unanimously specify that the driverless car has to have a driver who is ready to instantly take control of the vehicle. Moreover, what they are driving and testing are prototypes and jury-rigs; no one has yet built an autonomous vehicle. (Tesla cars offer “auto-pilot,” but it isn’t.) So almost all the stories you have read and seen about “driverless cars” on the road are fake (some fastidious journalists write about testing cars that are capable of becoming autonomous, but most people read right through the fastidiousness).

How are the potentially driverless cars doing in their testing? Awful. For example, in the first week of March, Uber’s 43 test cars in three states logged some 20,000 miles on public roads. Their drivers had to intervene and take control away from the software, an average of once every mile. Critical interventions, required to save lives and property, were counted separately; they occurred every 200 miles. Which makes your life expectancy, as a passenger in a truly autonomous car, approximately four hours.

How much will a driverless car cost? No one has a clue, because no one has built one yet. As Consumer Watchdog put it in its devastating report on the imaginary industry, “No completely self-driving vehicle is offered for sale today, and notwithstanding a great deal of marketing hype, no manufacturer has set a firm date when it will market a passenger vehicle that is able to operate in all conditions without human intervention, or, importantly, what it will cost to buy.” Just to hazard a guess here, my bet is that the early adapters to driverless cars are going to have to choose between buying the car and buying that second fully-staffed luxury yacht.

Would driverless cars need new infrastructure? You bet your booties. No one has even begun to plan, let alone estimate the cost of, a national network that would support the car-to-car, car-to-road and car-to-satellite communications that would be required by tens of millions of driverless cars. Figure that out, and then specify who is going to pay for the staggering cost, while our bridges collapse, our interstate highways continue to rot, and our potholes continue to eat 18-wheelers. Then you’ll have a plan.

What about insurance? Worry not, the insurance companies are on this, 24/7, with a full-court press in every state. Not, as you might think, to figure out how to equitably insure the vehicles and arbitrate liability; but to demand that all the state immediately suspend regulation of and restrictions on the insurance companies lest — and this is a quote from a top insurance lobbyist  —  the regulators “chill this promising technology and the huge advances in overall public safety it promises.” Speaking of chill — did you just feel one? You should have.

Bottom line: “driverless cars” are not here, and not coming. Like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, genetic engineering and other “next-big-thing” oxymorons, what we’re really talking about here is a high-tech con, designed to separate real morons from their money.

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23 Responses to The “Self-Driving Car” is Only an Oxymoron

  1. Kate says:

    Finally some straight talk about the latest mirage offered by techno-cultists. Before even mentioning such a fantasy, make my local bridges safe and beef up public transportation by subway and rail.

  2. Kate says:

    Oh–and also spend those resources figuring out how NYC, D.C., Miami, and many more cities are going to cope with sea level rise. Dams? Relocation? What?

    Talk about fiddling while the world burns
    .. maybe if we were more rational and had hundreds of years to work it out instead of a few decades, self-driving cars might make sense. But now, facing the biggest crisis yet, it’s just boys enamored of toys.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Boys? Why do you assume boys, Kate? A little bias there, maybe? One of the top engineers in Uber’s “self-driving cars” effort is a girl. So there.

      • Chris Harries says:

        I think it’s excusable. I’ve read some 70 articles romanticising the driverless car and not one of the authors is a female. Nor have I met a single female who waxes lyrical about the technology.

        I’m not being anti-male here, being one myself but it’s not healthy for society’s future to be determined too much by one gender. We know that from past experience.

  3. Kate says:

    Yes, I admit it– I’m biased.

  4. w brinck says:

    Yeah, funny youtube videos of people driving on icy streets and doing unintentional donuts when they hit the ice. Is this when the driverless car would want to turn control over to you, when it’s gone into a 360? Or how about driving into a fog bank at 80mph and the driverless car says, your turn now. ha ha. lots of new videos on the driverless car fails channel.
    The best part is that driverless cars all have video and the black box on the car will have a feed of not only what was happening outside the car but also what was going on inside the car. Or maybe the black box is in the cloud getting constant feed of all inputs to the software. The entertainment possibilities are endless.

  5. Rob Rhodes says:

    What a grim future we face, without flying self-driving electric cars fuelled by nuclear electricity too cheap to meter. Oh well, at least computers are getting better, longer lasting and easier to use.

  6. Ken Barrows says:

    Not so sure that newer computers are longer lasting ;)

  7. Brian says:

    What a clarifying antidote to what I just read over at Scribbler’s blog. What a welcome vaccination against the full-spectrum bullshit that daily cluster-bombs our brains.

  8. Juanita M Cutler says:

    Whatever happened to high-speed railway?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      You notice it’s not the government pushing “driverless cars,” but people intent on making big money from them. Railroads pretty much have to be done by the government, because of the scale, and our government has been MIA since 1980.

  9. Denis Frith says:

    This realistic comment on the the false promotion of driver-less cars does not tackle the realism of what is bound to happen in the future. Cars are made of irreplaceable materials, they irevocably age and they use up the limited energy. This is an unsustainable process that global societires will have to adapt to in due course.

  10. Tom says:

    From what I heard, the whole reason behind this is to eliminate the huge problem the trucking industry is having finding drivers for semis. Every trucking concern you can name has Drivers Wanted on their trucks with a phone number.

    Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis clears the air on this nonsense claim of “driverless cars” by pointing out the obvious, the motivation and the problems, while our ‘commentariat’ explore other dimensions of our predicament.

    Here’s another facet – the auto industry (as pointed out in the last thread) is DYING (mainly because the “well paying jobs” have evaporated and, whaddiya know – nobody can afford anything much anymore).

    Carmageddon for Hyundai, GM, Chrysler, Ford

    Every month in 2017, auto industry data providers have given dismal forecasts of auto sales. And every month, these forecasts weren’t nearly dismal enough.

    [this despite round the clock car and truck ADS – another industry I loathe]

    Thanks for another great post, Mr. Lewis – always timely, concise and spot-on.

  11. Chris says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the incisive article. You know, for some time now I have suspected that investors are talking up driver-less cars because they’d be so expensive that the assets would make a neat investment vehicle (I hope you enjoy the irony) and as such produce decent returns. You did sort of mention that bonds on sub prime auto loans are failing…

  12. David Veale says:

    We had autonomous vehicles 150 years ago, or at least 50% autonomous. My neighbor’s great grandfather, on longer trips, would sleep in his wagon while the horse took him home on longer trips. He would wake up in the barn with the horse munching hay he had put out beforehand. My own horse has made some attempts at autonomous driving as well, which I’ve thus far managed to thwart. Inebriated Amish have been known to make use of this advanced technology as well. So far as I know, it has a better record than the teslas. I give a return to this technology a better chance of revival than that currently being touted by the car makers. As a programmer myself, I would never put my life into the hands of software!

  13. colinc says:

    FTA… Is there such a thing as a “driverless car?” Not yet there isn’t.

    Au contraire, mon frere! Jackie Stewart (aka”The Flying Scot”) was(/is) a driver. Emerson Fittipaldi (aka “Emo”) was(/is) driver. Jochen Rindt was a driver, perhaps the greatest of all time to date (“… the only driver to be posthumously awarded the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship)!! ANYONE who cannot [honestly] count themselves among the peers of the aforementioned are most certainly NOT “drivers.” Readers here MAY (as in “maybe” or “might”) have a bone of contention _IF_ they have competed in MORE than a few SCCA races, from “Rally” status or above, AND NOT consistently finished near the back of the pack. If NOT, i.e. 99.9999999% of ALL people who have ever held a steering wheel, YOU don’t even come close for consideration as a “driver.” At best, you (at most half of you) are BARELY capable of AIMING your two(+) ton machine in a MOSTLY “safe” direction during any given instant. Otherwise, YOU know NOTHING about “driving.” And, don’t EVEN get me started on that other class of jackanapes who consider themselves “drivers” MERELY by going around the same damnable oval track and believing that “drafting” is a “skill.” Fuck the Unsers, Pettys and their ilk… a more useless strain of “human” the world has NEVER known!!! (Except the legions who admire and laud those assholes as “racers.”) In other words and to sum-up, 99.9999999% of ALL cars AND trucks (of ANY size) on ANY and EVERY road or highway, ANYWHERE in the world at ANY given instant, are by every relevant measure “driverless.”

    Moreover, to reinforce Mr. Veale’s comment, having written more than my “fair share” of computer code and providing literally countless hours of computer administration and trouble-shooting across multiple platforms, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a “computer-controlled” vehicle… or it’s likely the ONLY way I, or any of us, will be “caught.” Thankfully, before more than a few of these autonomous contraptions can hit the road, MOST of “us” will no longer have ANY worries and the rest will be on our heels. Enjoy what you can, while you can ’cause “time” for such is running out at an ever accelerating pace.

  14. Dennis Mitchell says:

    I’m still waiting for the thirty your work week I was promised.

  15. Arnie Allison says:

    Sleeping on the interstate in bumper to bumper slow traffic is all that I see in the future! It is now proven that some old toots will panic if their cars go over 40 plus MPH. Aviation has proven that ever possible in transit problem can NOT be provided for with a computer program and a human is a necessary backup.

  16. SomeoneInAsia says:

    QUOTE: Bottom line: “driverless cars” are not here, and not coming. Like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, genetic engineering and other “next-big-thing” oxymorons, what we’re really talking about here is a high-tech con, designed to separate real morons from their money. (End of quote)

    And this is the sickening sort of game power elites everywhere have been playing since the beginning of time: brew up some fairy tale to manipulate the gullible or illiterate masses. And always for one purpose and one purpose only: the acquisition and continued possession of wealth and power. Yesterday it was religion or some common enemy; today it’s the fantasy of endless ‘progress’. And if some smart alack who cares comes along and questions the fairy tale — thereby threatening the elites’ hold on the reins of wealth and power — then either (1) he is hunted down by the elites and silenced in the most brutal manner (as in places like modern bloody communist China) or (2) the elites instead throw at the masses a dazzling magic show of entertainments and distractions so that the masses end up so mesmerised by the magic show their attention is completely shifted away from the smart alack, whose voice ends up largely unheard. ((2) is the trick the so-called democracies of the West resort to.)

    If there’s a God, I really don’t think he has done a good job at all.