It Could Happen - Universally Autonomous Cars Could Fail in the Marketplace

Companies that must employ drivers and pay them, even without customary benefits, would like to replace them with computers that can drive autonomously. This makes such vehicles candidates for taxis, buses, and trucks. But what about customers who actually enjoy being in control of a car that they own? Is that an enduring or dying part of American culture? Let's look at some issues.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about autonomous car technology. We've seen a lot of testing going on, and there's a certain amount of buzz about the technology because it just seems so cool. See: "Self-driving Chevy Bolt arrives in San Francisco." However, there are many questions to be asked and cultural issues that come into play.

The most obvious implementation is the area of replacing human drivers by taxi companies like Didi, Lyft and Uber as well as bus and trucking lines. That seems like a callous thing to do, but it has substantial advantages. Drivers who are responsible for the lives of others occasionally make fatal mistakes. Drug testing and background checks would be eliminated.

When it comes to mind-numbing, stop-and-go daily commutes of more than 20 or 30 minutes, customers would probably rather be drinking coffee and reading or teleconferencing than staring at the back of other cars that constantly cut in front or jockey for position.

On the other hand, for people who live in the wide-open spaces of the American west and south, the tradition of freedom and control that comes from driving a high-performance car won't go away soon. That's why many (hundreds of?) millions of viewers have enjoyed Top Gear over the years, subscribe to car magazines, fantasize about supercars, and will keep watching Clarkson, May and Hammond on Amazon's @thegrandtour this fall.

Insurance Issues

And then there's the issue of insurance. This is being looked at by the insurance companies. There is no doubt that car accidents and injures are caused by human error. For now, various technologies are being implemented to reduce the cause with lane-change warnings, radar-managed emergency braking, infrared heads-up night vision, and so on. Ultimately, however, the industry has to figure out how to insure the motorist for new environments.

To be sure, property damage (flood, hail, etc) and theft insurance will remain. But when the autonomous cars make a mistake, and they will, the insurance industry will need to work with the manufacturers to balance risk and costs. The reduction in costs due to the elimination of human error and consequent pay-outs could offset the absorption of some liability by the maker. That is, if regulation requires self-monitoring, logging, and a legal way to establish the source of the car's error.

This sensible and comprehensive article is worth a look. "Self-Driving Cars and Insurance" not because it has all the answers but because it raises the right questions.

Why Do We Have Time? So Everything Doesn't Happen at Once

(That was Albert Einstein, BTW). I foresee a gradual transition. An emerging technology period of pre-autonomous smartcars could reduce accidents by quite a bit, but leave the driver in control for pleasure driving or emergencies. Meanwhile, fully-autonomous vehicles will be used by the kinds of companies I mentioned at the top.

Also, the emergence of crowd-sourcing, supercomputers in our pockets, the cloud, augmented reality, and the now technical feasibility of passenger drones could foster unforeseen, serendipitous solutions, and take us down a different road.

It remains to be seen if the car buying public will adopt, in a wholesale fashion, the idea of owning a car that has no controls and cannot be used to, as Chevy has said, "See the U.S.A." There will likely be a mixed environment for a long time to come. Many will just want to fire up their iPhone app and get a pre-programmed ride. Others will still want to take charge (of a much safer, personally owned smartcar) and be on their way to the ski slopes.

It's hard, right now, to predict a highly monolithic vision. There are lots of diffrent people with differing needs and affections. The fully autonomous car won't descend on us in totality, and that's something all the car companies will have to deal with, including, presumably, Apple.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 16th. The inevitable technical trade-offs our culture makes.

Page 2 - The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 16th

The inevitable technical & cultural trade-offs our iPhone makes


I am not shy about saying that for years, right here, eventually the future smartphone would be divided into two components. The electronic guts which can be tucked away in a pocket (or in the cloud), and the way we view and interact with the device would change. Here's a great synopsis of exactly that, fleshed out in some detail. "Someday you’ll have no screens in your life." I liked this article a lot and so will you.

In a similar vein, the details of our dependence on these technologies has to be explored and established. There's a trade-off between convenience and dependence on the infrastructure, and when turning a profit vastly trumps the convenience and security of the customer, we typically get into trouble. And so, I present, without commentary on a sly and playful title, "Satan’s Credit Card: What The Mark Of The Beast Taught Me About The Future Of Money."

Apple's recent tussle with the FBI put an important technical trade-off under the microscope. Namely, in the name of absolute law enforcement and the conceit of no government abuse, ever, should citizens give up important rights, rights that apply equally to their own privacy, financial security and physical safety. It looks like, for now, the citizens have spoken. In a similar vein, I ran across this story about another kind of social trade-off. It all boiled down to the government's vague liberty to declare a smartphone emergency. Parents especially should read: "Bill Named After Murdered Girl Fails On House Floor As Her Family Watches."

This could well have been a major motion picture. An encryption mystery popped up on the Internet at Reedit, went mostly unsolved, and then went away. The authors declared, “We cannot disclose the purpose. A858 will end when the purpose is disclosed or discovered.” Don't miss this one: "The strange and twisting case of r/A858, Reddit's indecipherable Stonehenge."

Why did Microsoft make its ignominious exit from the consumer smartphone market? This chart tells all. Lest you have forgotten Steve Ballmer's initial response to the new iPhone in 2007, I'll link to it again here so you can have some delicious Saturday morning CTTN moments.

Remember when presidential candidate Donald Trump boasted that he would force Apple to bring all its iPhone manufacturing back to the U.S.? So Americans could have those jobs? We laughed because we knew that, eventually, those Foxconn workers would be replaced by robots. And so, I present the fruition of that technical intuition: "Trump Doesn't Need To Bother Apple About Manufacturing In America—Foxconn Replaces 60,000 With Robots."

I don't know what to make of this article just yet.  It's a trade-off gone bad. For now, I'll present it without comment and hope that the Europay-Mastercard-Visa consortium fixes this mess soon. "EMV rules ruining Apple Pay." I'd bet good money that Apple and Google will be applying some back pressure.

Finally, technology marches forward relentlessly. It's neither good or bad in itself. Often, however, we are tempted to make value judgments about the quality of the past or the sufficiency of the present. Nowhere is this more applicable than in video entertainment. Again, surprise, a personal trade-off.

Our culture is on track to move forward to 4K UHD TV, HDR and higher frame rates, something I've written about in previous columns, right here. It's just a fact of our universal human thirst for great visual entertainment. If you doubt that we will ever go far beyond mere HDTV, I present the latest facts from a reputable source, Strategy Analytics: "11 million N[orth] American homes to own UHD TV" by the end of 2016.

The price of entry has now reached the critical point. For example, a 65-inch 4K UHD Vizio with HDR and Dolby Vision sells for US$1,499. Today.

Streaming content, UHD Blu-ray content and TV prices are converging to a consumer friendly point right now. And it only gets better from now on. Count me in.

Future display concept  and autonomous car concept via Shutterstock.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed on page two by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.