Brief stream of consciousness on driver-less cars

Every so often I’ll see an article extolling the future of driverless cars and threatening the obsolescence of people owning and controlling their own vehicles. The fact that all of these articles are playing on fear is telling: They aren’t enticing customers, they are threatening them. Nevermind the technical issues surrounding attempts at autonomously navigating a chaotic and complex world: My problem with the way “driverless cars” are being pushed is that they’re being *pushed*. They aren’t being sold to customers the way any of industry’s great success stories are being sold. Think about the personal computer. Think about the internal combustion engine.

Think about the way Windows 7 was sold to customers as a personal operating system, vs. the way Windows 10 was pushed on them (breaking computers and wrecking data in a process that I’m amazed Microsoft got away with legally). The way users are constantly being threatened with “dumb info-appliance terminals that you can rent as a service”, aka “you don’t need that much computer.”

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With any successful product which actually changes the world, people have an incentive to buy it because it is a tool they can use to solve their problem. It is *their* tool which *they* can use to solve *their* problems. If someone comes up with a driverless system that lives in the dashboard of a car the user owns, (and therefore *controls*) that the user can turn on and off at will – a sort of advanced cruise control (and given the limitations of computers understanding the world, that will be *necessary*): That would be a way to sell automated cars to customers. Pushing for a utopian (almost all utopias are dystopias because they are fundamentally disempowering) future where “you don’t need a car, you can rent from some fuedal overlord who owns all the cars” is exactly as attractive to me as the people pushing dumb terminals “you don’t need a whole personal computer – what are you going to do with it? Just rent applications from the cloud.”

In one presentation by a grad student working on an avionics problem, a business jet crash was outlined: A pilot was trying to land a business jet but couldn’t deploy the landing gear. The jet continued circling the tower while the pilot fought with his computer. Apparently the avionics were programmed so that the pilot couldn’t deploy the landing gear if the flight computer thought it was above a certain altitude. The alitmeter wasn’t working because the pitot probe got clogged with something while flying. Eventually the pilot ran out of gas and had to make the attempt: He belly slid across the runway and spun out into a hangar.

The lesson the person doing the presentation *wanted* us to take from this was “we obviously need *smarter* avionics that can combine two or more pieces of info!” A professor from the combustion lab stood up and asked the obvious: “Why didn’t the pilot have an override?!” The grad student stared at him like he had grown two heads: “Why would you even *want* that?!”

There seem to be two deep philosophies at war in how products and systems are being designed in the modern world. In one, technology is supposed to empower the user to do something, in the other technology is supposed to control the user and funnel him into some pattern of working or living that the designer wants. One is something people will actually buy of their own free will. The other is something they’ll have to be forced into somehow. (Or perhaps, one is something the operator would buy, the other is something someone who thinks they ‘own’ the operators might buy if they are sufficiently arrogant about “replacing them”.)

There seems to be a fundamental lack of respect for the customer, owner, operator, pilot, what have you.

Comments (1)

  1. 3:54 am, March 20, 2018kss  / Reply

    It’s all about FREEDOM!!

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