Friday, January 12, 2018

The Driverless Car, an opportunity being missed.

In a state that has an idiotic belief system that a car and only a car is a form of transportation, I'm throwing all my support to the towards a future where all motor vehicles being computer driven. Right now, we are at the cusp of this technology, and we can start writing the rules in which self driving vehicles will operate under.

If you are wondering why I am a big advocate for the driverless car, it is because of what happened a few years ago when a person riding a fixie stopped right at an intersection where a Google car was being tested. As the gentleman riding the fixie came to a stop, he never once put his feet on the ground which is called a trackstand, an ability that most people, including the engineers where unaware that you could do that on a bicycle, especially on a fixie.   The two computer programmers quickly got to their keyboard and started to write the code to teach the car identify the stopped cyclist.  This act alone pretty much told me that we should be embracing the driverless car because the way thing are right now, a car has more rights than you or I bicycling or walking.

The vision written by for the driverless car is a world where people don't own cars anymore because it's cheaper to use an Uber, Lyft or a former vehicle manufacturer providing car sharing services.  Even Walmart and Target will get into the game by providing free rides to and from their stores.  Now, I'm not going to be getting into a conversation about the effects on Public Transportation and VIA, but it will have an effect but I'll leave that for another blog post.

With our civic leaders giving into drivers complaints that bicycle lanes and useless sharrows are graffiti and cause imaginary problems, we are stuck with infrastructure that don't meet the demands of Vision Zero and the demands of 21st Century.  We are also stuck with unsafe drivers who feel that it's their right to run over people protesting or riding a bicycle.  We are also stuck with drunk drivers who have no alternatives to get around other than by operating a motor vehicle after hanging out at a bar.

Whether you like it or not, autonomous automobiles are coming, and we are at the cusp of the technology.  But what I find frightening is that the Bicycle and Pedestrian advocates associations like Bike Texas and the League of American Bicyclist are ignoring the opportunity to dictate the rules of self-driving cars interactions with vulnerable road users and land use policies which even with the vision of SA Tomorrow 2040, they leave bicycles out of the plans when it comes to the inner city. 

You've probably heard about the three laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov wrote down in his famous novel, I, Robot.  They are
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Shouldn't we be making sure that those who are manufacturing driverless cars do not hit people in the first place?  Shouldn't a driverless car be programmed to operate at 20 mph down narrow urban neighborhood streets and when someone is walking across the street, "jaywalking," slow down, flash their lights to signal the pedestrian to safely proceed?  I'm a truck driver and when I come to a pedestrian whether at a truck stop, or driving my rig through a small town's downtown, I flash my high-beams to tell the person crossing the street that it's okay to cross.  For the life of me, I cannot understand why the people at Scientific American can't come to the same conclusion

Shared Lane Markings, or "Sharrows" are road markings used to indicate share space.  What they really show is a city unwilling to inconvenience drivers in the slightest. And because San Antonio isn't willing to inconvenience drivers in the slightest, we see people who are in motorized wheelchairs not even on the sidewalks, but on the streets because the sidewalks are unsafe and they suck. (Image 71.1)  (#sasidewalkssuck.)  But it's not just people that are in wheelchairs that are in the area designated for moving motor vehicles, but every other vulnerable road user.  You've probably seen on freeway to slower traffic keep right.  Well shouldn't we designate driverless cars to use the left lane going down stroads that have more than 4 travel lanes?  And because these cars are in the left lane, shouldn't they be allowed to drive just a little bit faster than the speed limit?  By doing this, and as more and more people get into driverless cars, over time this will free up the right lane for vulnerable road users.  These cars will still get into the right lane to make that right turn, but if we limit the travel lanes to be to the farthest left, then we'll have that right lane free for the vulnerable road user. 

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
You've probably seen headlines like this, Self-Driving Mercedes-Benzes Will Prioritize Occupant Safety over Pedestrians stating that a driverless car might just go onto the sidewalk to protect it's human cargo.  I am here to tell people that this won't happen because these cars will not follow the other vehicle so close that the stopping distance is less than the following distance. Also all collisions that have occurred with a driverless car so far was because the human behind the driverless vehicle was following to close. 

Yet we hear these headlines over and over again.  This one from NPR warning about how bicycles will need a transponder for erratic behavior, yet in the story, cyclist in Pittsburgh prefer driverless cars than the cars driven by human beings.  This goes back to my suggestion that driverless cars should be in the left lane where available and possible and by doing this, we won't need to worry about cyclist "erratic behavior."  And to avoid more of this "erratic behavior", should we teach cyclist to make left turns by waiting at the red light on the street they're making the left turn to?  Also programming the car to recognize the standard hand signals would also lead to less confusion.

But leave it to fear mongering journalist with a headline of "Robot-human smackdown: Self-driving car and bicyclist collide in San Francisco."  What this story leaves out is that the engineers probably wrote code to prevent this or at least reduce this from happening again.  

If I'm worried about anything, I'm worried about people who feel that they own the road reprogramming their vehicles to disregard human life.  You know, how most people drive, and the disregarding of human life that is encourage by traffic engineers including here in San Antonio.    You've probably heard this before, how some people want to kill us for being environmental friendly, for believing that we who choose not to drive don't pay for the roadway.  If we don't have mandatory  minimums for reprogramming driverless vehicles to disregard human life, we will not see justice with these heinous crimes because as we all know, a car currently has more rights than you or I walking or bicycling.  I know it should be jail time and that imprisonment should last no less than 3 yrs.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Now for this part in relating to Asimov's Laws, it's harder to connect this law to what driverless cars do, but already they'll be protecting their occupants over the people on the outside as well as their own existence.  To explain this part, I'll have to relate to my experience of being an 18 wheeler driver.
As a Truck Driver, you're responsible for an 80ft vehicle weighing up to 80,000 lbs (today's cars weigh up to 2,000 pounds) and in the safety videos they make us watch once a month, they'll describe allowing other people to cut you off, and you better be prepared to stop. It's about getting the entire picture of where you are driving and thinking 2, 3, even 5 steps ahead in making maneuvers such as lane changes or right turns.  The company that I drive for rams home this thought, "its not about who's right or wrong in a car crash, it's about avoiding the collision in the first place."  And it's that thought process that I'm confident that will also be the first and forethought concept of how driverless cars safety rules will be govern.

Already Germany is the only country to make self driving car regulations. Here are the key elements of their decision:   
  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).    
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.     
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.     
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.     
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).     
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).
Land Use Policies....
Did you know in San Antonio, we have a ordnance, § 35-526. Parking and Loading Standards dictating the amount of minimum parking spots you have to have for your business or apartment.  This is just one reason why rent cost in places where it's easier to live without a car are going up to $1,000 a month.  It's why when SA Tomorrow 2040 came out with vehicle parking over protected bicycle lanes in many of it's inner city corridors.

I wrote back in October 2014 on where to live if you wanted to live in San Antonio car free, you had to live in a certain area in and around downtown.  With the majority of our population living outside this 'square' the need to provide service to an ever increasing aging population with crumbling infrastructure will become more expensive. The way things are going, VIA will have a harder time providing regular bus service because more of their funding will be diverted to paratransit operations.  And as car crashes become more rarer, laws will be further passed to limit repeated offenders of DUI and DWI to have to own a driverless cars.

As Uber and Lyft become the main provider of transportation, parking garages will become hot real estate commodities because these companies will need and want to have cars ready in heavily congested area.  If parking garages are not enough, they will buy on street parking making it almost impossible to build protected bicycle lanes where they are needed in Downtown.

One of the fears that have been mention by the media is a car that drops off a person and continues to drive around the block until it's ready to be called for.  I guarantee that this isn't going to happen because the car will not have enough energy to go around the block, but will most likely drive back to it's origin.  If that origin happens to be more than 30 miles away, it will park at a designated parking area that is set aside by the manufacture, or programed by the service he/she leases to.

As you can see in the image above, (Image 72.2) a space for two parking spots is enough to make a studio apartment.  The reason why VIA sucks in San Antonio is because we lack the density to make transit viable.  Before this occurs, shouldn't we make a sure that we have a occupancy minimum or a parking maximum in our most walkable places? We here in San Antonio don't understand that a parking lot is unproductive piece of property. We don't understand that because the supply of housing is low, the price is high, and having more housing will eventually lower costs.

As owning a car becomes more cost prohibited, people will turn to driverless car services companies.  Like any for profit company, their main thing isn't about providing services like VIA, but to earn as much money as possible. They will do what car manufacturers have done for decades, make walking a crime, make bicycling undesirable, and make public transit suck. If you don't think that this is going to happen, think again. We already we are seeing Uber and Lyft take away from transit trips and walking trips.

One of the hopes of the driverless cars is that it will bring back the urban fabric that has been missing from the times of the Streetcar, before GM took out those streetcar systems to get more people to buy their products.  I hate to break it to you, but these companies are for making money. They will figure out that having places far apart from each other with large acres of parking will increase their profits.  For Profit companies already work hard to influence local governments, not to mention state and federal.  But if we were able to create laws that make it a crime to have a vacant lots and a parking maximums in all our communities, then we would force these giants to heal to a better future.

I wrote two scenarios, both based on my, what I perceive to be my future.  One is a dark world where people are getting tickets on Probandt because it's against the law.  The other is a brighter world where my co-workers are riding their bicycles to work because the built environment is friendly to vulnerable road users.  I encourage you to read both and ask yourself, do you want the one where your struggling to get by, where VIA is garbage, or do you want one where you're riding with your grand kids to the Alamo from your house, maybe as far away as SW Military? 

71.1:  Person in a wheelchair going south on N Colorado between Ruiz and Martin.
72.2:  An Illustration on how two unused parking spaces are enough to make a small studio.

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