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Risk Management and the Road

This sounds a little bit like the noise a shoe makes when it hits the floor after dropping:

Over the past two years, after decades of declining deaths on the road, U.S. traffic fatalities surged by 14.4 percent. In 2016 alone, more than 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade. Regulators, meanwhile, still have no good idea why crash-related deaths are spiking: People are driving longer distances but not tremendously so; total miles were up just 2.2 percent last year. Collectively, we seemed to be speeding and drinking a little more, but not much more than usual. Together, experts say these upticks don’t explain the surge in road deaths.

There are however three big clues, and they don’t rest along the highway. One, as you may have guessed, is the substantial increase in smartphone use by U.S. drivers as they drive. From 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned an iPhone, Android phone, or something comparable rose from 75 percent to 81 percent.

The second is the changing way in which Americans use their phones while they drive. These days, we’re pretty much done talking. Texting, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the order of the day—all activities that require far more attention than simply holding a gadget to your ear or responding to a disembodied voice. By 2015, almost 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social media. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.

For at least a decade now I have been pointing out how for all of our concerns with people talking on cell phones on the road, the roads have never been safer. All of the new dangers being presented weren’t enough to overcome advances in automobile safety technology and better civil engineering. And now the longstanding trend has finally reversed itself. It looks like I am finally losing that argument. The case that the uptick has been caused by smartphone usage is inconveniently convincing.

An interesting thing is that we’re talking about it less now than we were when traffic fatality rates were still declining. I think we have talked ourselves to the end of the conversation before we really needed to even have the conversation. Now that maybe we do, we seem to have moved on. What’s more, it’s not clear there is much to discuss. We’ve rhetorically put ourselves into a corner where it’s not clear realistic mitigating steps are allowed and we’re left with effective but impossible ones.

You may have seen a billboard on the side of the road that says “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.” This motto is accurate from a legal standpoint but not much else. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there is a huge difference in risk between somebody driving with a .08 BAC and .16. We may not want either on the road, and there may be reasons to treat them the same legally (though I doubt it), but if I am driving home at one in the morning and I had a choice of sharing the road with 20 drivers with a .09 BAC or two drivers with .18, I’ll probably take the former. While most drunk drivers are at the lower end of the legal limit, fatal accidents and even simple arrests usually involve people at around or more than double the legal limit.

Having lowered the legal drinking limit to .08, we have also labeled all manner of other behavior ask being “as risky as drunk driving” even if it’s not as risky as the real problem of drunk drivers. If you listen to sports, eat, talk on a cell, or are simply under-rested, you’re “as dangerous as a drunk driver.” It’s less than entirely clear what category of drunk, though. But lower limits and the inability to differentiate between buzzed driving and drunk driving makes such comparisons hard.

So for years everybody was freaking out over people talking on cell phones and driving. We passed some ineffectual laws requiring that they be hands free even though we knew that wasn’t really the problem. Accidents that otherwise would have been avoided were happening, but the roads weren’t getting more dangerous. Until now, apparently. As the article indicates, it took more than just talking. We had to walk a lot further down the spectrum of risk before the trends reversed themselves.

Laws against tweeting on the road, like texting and talking on phones, are almost certainly going to be ineffective. Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wanted to actually disable phones in moving vehicles, and that’s just never going to happen. To the extent that we can do anything about this, it’s likely going to involve accepting some risk. Which probably means that we’re not going to do anything about it.

What I mean by “accepting some risk” here is basically allowing people to do some of the things that we would rather they not do, but to enable them to do these things with some lesser degree of risk. That means more voice-activated technology. It means good transcription and phones reading text messages out to you. All of these things are possible, but they’ve yet to be fully embraced. From a public health standpoint voice activation has been determined to be “a safety risk.”

Many applicable mobile apps aren’t even trying. One of the better navigation apps out there is HERE We Go. It has offline maps, up-to-date maps, decent time estimates, and good speed limit alerts. However, if you’re wanting to put in a destination that’s already in your address book, you’re looking at a minimum of six button presses and usually seven. The good news for them and other drivers is that I’m not going to even attempt that on the road (Google Maps has reasonable good voice direction), but it doesn’t appear to be designed with actual use in mind. Due to this, I often just end up not using it to begin with.

Others, meanwhile, may be trying too hard. I can’t speak to Apple’s efforts, but I’ve test-driven Android Auto and found that the biggest problem I had with it was that it was way too conservative. I simply can’t do the things I want to do with it. Rather than meekly accepting this, I end up bypassing it entirely and using my own setup. I think my setup has a similar risk profile as using a dash-top GPS device and the car stereo; it could be a lot safer. But Google has its own concerns, the biggest of which is they have strong liability incentives to err on the side of caution. If I’m not using their system and I get into an accident, that’s not their problem. If I’m using their system, plaintiff’s attorneys may start asking, “Why did you allow this feature that took people’s eyes off the road?” The end result is more overall risk.

We might like to think that we can convince people not to do dangerous things, but that’s not going to work. We’re at that uncomfortable phase where we have the ability to do more things than ever, but we haven’t figured out how to make it easy, non-distracting, and seamless. All the while, we are arguably discouraging further innovation that will help us get there faster. The long term solution is going to be cars that scan for pedestrians and whatnot. But in the meantime, suggesting that we should keep these things shelved until they’re really safe is ultimately going to be encouraging people to text with one eye and one hand while trying to keep the other one of each on the road.

The main thing we need to never lose sight of is that operating 3000-pound machinery that hurls down roads 30 to 60 miles per hour is not a question of safe vs. dangerous, but a question of relative danger.

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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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184 thoughts on “Risk Management and the Road

  1. I never understood why there was a need for specific laws regarding cellphones/devices. It’s distracted and/or reckless driving, which is something the police can already stop you for.

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  2. I really do not understand the way that some public health and safety advocates seem to forget everything they know about harm reduction when some topics come up. You’ve mentioned it before in the context of vaping [1], and here it is again.

    You just need to run faster than the bear.

    [1] Which AIUI is worse than not vaping, but way better than smoking tobacco.

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  3. This news doesn’t surprise me. The number of imbeciles you see in cars nearly hitting people, sitting stopped at green lights or nearly or actually running through red lights has become astonishingly high from my own mere subjective experience. I guarantee you that the majority of these idiots are not trying to use map applications either.

    The problem, of course, is that this seems to be an unsolvable problem policy wise. The police can already pull you over for any of this but there are so many people doing it that I presume the cops are overwhelmed and simply don’t bother. Likewise I’m sure insurance can punish this by finding fault with the phone user but how do you prove that when the phone simply can be put away after an accident?

    Technological halfway fixes won’t work either- phones that don’t work in moving cars and cars that don’t permit phones would sit unsought on the market. I glumly suspect that this is simply going to persist indefinitely. Driverless cars cannot come fast enough for me.

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    • For a technical fix, I suspect that phone makers will be encouraged to include a bit of a black box feature to a phone such that it knows when it is being held and manipulated, and it maintains a log of such actions for a time. Police can then access the log to see if the phone was in use at about the time of the incident.

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      • You beat me to it. I’m not sure how much good it would do in prevention (since people do it specifically with the belief they *won’t* get into an accident), but basically the phone recording all operations while in movement for a specified period of time (say 24 hours) would at least make it easier to hold people accountable.

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        • Prevention is an impossible goal, so I see no value in focusing efforts there beyond making sure everyone is aware of the consequences should the proscribed act result in harm. But once a person causes a harm, I do want to know what contributed to the incident.

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    • I’m not sure why we can’t explore technology “nudges”

      At a minimum, disabling notification for a range of app types when in a moving vehicle could be the default setting… its more the “ding” than the actual importance text we’re conditioned to. If you are a passenger, then a override click is available (available to a bad driver too… but then we’re a step closer to willful negligence).

      Again, the simple nudge is to assume that of course you don’t want to be distracted with a Text you can’t respond to while driving… and take if from there.

      Heck, I’d even settle for an opt-in at the carrier level… let me turn it off for my phones (and all the phones on my accounts). Might be a half-measure, but it would be a good half measure.

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      • For those of us who don’t live in the vast wastelands of middle America, how will the phone tell the difference between being on a moving train or bus and being in a car? Or riding in a car one isn’t driving?

        If I try to adjust things in Waze while I’m driving, an alert will pop up saying it is locked while in motion. Buuuuut… I can just click the “Passenger” button on that same alert and bypass the lock. So, yea.

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          • Silly . Middle America is not a reference to a geographical place but an acknowledgement that a class of subhumans exists somewhere in this great land of ours (mine, really) and it is prudent I at least pretend to recognize their basic humanity. Chicago, Denver, and all three of the Twin Cities are coastal bastions of culture and sunshine.

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            • We do not talk to or about “those flyover people” except in hushed tones and swanky cocktail parties. And then only with pity. They are, you know, only slightly better than those poor coal miner folk who sleep with their sisters.

              They just need to be nudged, until it doesn’t work, then forced, to stop their foolish ways: smoking, eating fat, eating too much, not exercising, drinking soda, and not voting for Hillary.

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        • I think Marchmaine’s position relies on the notion that we’re actually okay having alerts turned off and wouldn’t take steps to undo it. Which is why it is a nudge rather than something with the full force of the law forcing people (except manufacturers/developers) to do anything.

          To be honest, that’s not a bad bet. Most of the time I would be fine turning off alerts while I am in motion (at least until such a time as it’s read to me and I can speak back to it. I just forget). And if I’m a passenger, I can turn it back on.

          It does strike me as a modest measure that could have a noticeable impact.

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          • Ah, understood.

            iPhones do have a “Do Not Disturb” feature. I don’t know anyone who actually uses it. But it’d seem like exactly what you wanted in these moments: no alerts except those that you can customize as emergency in one way or another.

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              • I also get relatively few notifications pushed through: text, phone calls, work email, FB messenger. That’s pretty much it. No personal email. Not on Twitter. No Insta. No Facebook. So maybe I’m the weirdo.

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            • Android has that, too. I have mine set to automatically kick in at midnight and out at 7am. If there were a checkbox to flip it on when I’m driving, I’d use it. The main reason I don’t do it manually is (a) I forget or (b) I am worried I will forget to turn it off when I get to where I’m going.

              Anyway, just today I had my Twitter explode with notifications while I was driving. Even though it actually posed no hazard (I wasn’t going to check Twitter while driving) it was still very annoying because it kept interrupting my audiobook.

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              • If you use Bluetooth pairing to your car stereo, you might be able to use that as the trigger to turn do-not-disturb on and off.

                iOS 11 can do this – you can tell it whether to rely on pairing with a car stereo, or on driving-typical speed as the queue that you’re driving.

                For Android you might need some kind of custom automator app – it’s hard to predict anything about Android, there are so many versions and vendor rolls…

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  4. As much as I rant about the idiots on the road, and I’ve seen plenty, I really take a different take.

    Nothing matters until there’s an “accident”. Until the behavior, which might violate some stupid “law”, causes injury or property damage, you do you, I’ll do me. I stopped really caring when my state determined that “speeding” was “aggressive driving”. Sorry, driving 80 in a 70 in the left lane passing everyone isn’t aggressive driving. Doing 80 weaving around traffic, crossing all three lanes and back again, is.

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  5. I think that 10 years from now we will recognize this as an unfortunate dark spot on an otherwise solid trajectory of safety improvement. Two things are happening quickly that are going to fix this. The first is much more immediate and the second is probably 5 years out.

    1) Voice commands. I’m trying to integrate this as much as possible into my daily life now. Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, etc. In the car I use voice-to-text and other commands as much as possible. I use it for taking notes, since I often do my work-thinking in the car. They aren’t perfect but they are improving rapidly.

    2) Self-driving cars. This is going to happen and I can’t wait. Commutes will become enjoyable. I can text and do lots of other things with no worries.

    I will also add that I have tried Google Maps and Mapquest on my phone and find both lacking. I still prefer my stand-along GPS. It frees up my phone for other things and I just think it’s safer. Unfortunately though, we bought one for both our daughters and both refuse to use them. They see it as unnecessary to have a second device.

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      • I think the self-driving cars will likely have on/off features. You turn it on while on the freeway and off on surface streets, or choose to leave it on/off all the time. It will be a blend of sorts. I do think my podcast and music listening would suffer if I could read stuff on my phone or a tablet. TBD I guess.

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      • I’m looking forward to the period of time where you can turn self-driving off, since I too enjoy driving but I can see the benefits of not. But I expect that will be short-lived … once self-driving cars are common and cheap and very unlikely (like wayyyyyyyyyy more unlikely) to crash than human-driven cars, we’re gonna be outlawed.

        Well no, we won’t. But there will be a whole entire paradigm devoted to explaining how cars are just like guns and only bad people would want to drive cars themselves and etc etc etc…. with a whole lot less weight-of-tradition than guns have.

        And my pseudo-grand-children will have no idea why I can’t let the whole driving my own car thing go no matter how many times I explain its emotional significance and I’ll probably spend a lot of money to stay properly licensed for sport-driving and be totally in denial about my eyes getting too bad for it to be safe and etc etc. (“I mean, Grauntle Maribou! You didn’t even drive for like *5 years* between high school and college! Why do you care so much!?!?!”)

        (Note I’m not saying I’ll be *correct* to resent this. I suspect it will fall into the category of stuff that makes Maribou an anti-social jerkface. But I can see the logical trajectory here pretty clearly… the only thing that would really cheer me up about it would be self-driving FLYING cars, which would totally be worth the trade-off. On a personal level, I mean.)

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        • Yep, I’m going to be that guy who refuses to get a self driving car. And you’re right, the desired trend is to make them the only option, that on EVs. That last part will take decades, because no one is driving from Yakima to the Dalles Oregon on an EV anytime soon.

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          • I think we’ll probably see those specific lanes devoted to self-driving cars and it will be optional at first. Have an important conference call? Get in the self-driving lane and do your thing. On a roadtrip with the family and you want to do it yourself? Stay in the old lanes. And as people find themselves using the self-driving lane more and more, then it will reach critical mass. I keep thinking about all the technology I have embraced in just the last couple of years that seemed unlikely I would enjoy when it first came out.

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            • I suspect that as self-driving cars reach some meaningful percentage of traffic – maybe 10% or something – traffic will get way safer.

              We get our cues for how fast is a reasonable speed largely from traffic around us. If every tenth car is self-driving and has a heads-up warning of congestion or dangerous conditions a mile ahead down the road and start slowing down in anticipation – well, the rest of us will start learning to trust the traffic speed.

              Kind of like the people who find someone else with a radar detector and speed behind them, but for safety not deliberate unsafety.

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            • Optional at first I agree. But as soon as self driving cars become reliably superior to human driven machines the insurance industry will take note. You can bet that insurance rates on non-optional auto-driven cars will plummet and as the driving-hating and driving indifferent customers switch to those options the rates on self driving or optional self driving cars will skyrocket to the stratosphere.

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        • I’m also wondering if self-driving cars will wind up having an “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that” mode, like if an overweight person gets in one and asks to go to the ice cream shop.

          Then again, I doubt my remote area will get them in the 40 year or so that remain of my lifespan, so I probably need not worry.

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      • It’s okay Damon, absent state intervention the market will turn your driving over to a machine as soon as machine driving is reliably superior to human driving unless you’re wildly wealthy when it happens.

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        • absent state intervention the market will turn your driving over to a machine as soon as machine driving is reliably superior to human driving unless you’re wildly wealthy when it happens.

          Really? I don’t see that happening in the retail market at all. Ie., I don’t see car-owners//drivers clamoring for self-driving cars. People like to drive. What I see is see is Big Tech clamoring for them to create *new* markets to sell the technology, and maybe Big Insurance clamoring for their increased safety features. But that’s not “the” market.

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            • The best use of the tech I’ve heard was offered by my tech-savvy nephew one night over beers: self-driving cars allows people to not own their own vehicles anymore. They can just dial-up a car, it drives itself over to their location, and then they go where they want to go. *That* makes sense to me as a motivation for self-driving tech. The idea that people won’t continue to desire manually operating their own vehicles, tho? That’s alien to everything I know about human nature. :)

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                • I mean most of the business model is already there with Uber and Lyft, and I know people who forego car ownership entirely to rely on those services. People in the ‘burbs, that is, not just folks living in NYC who wouldn’t have owned a car thirty years ago, either.

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              • Ah yes, let’s “rent” those cars.

                We already had vehicle that you, in practice, if not law, don’t technically ”
                own”. Proprietary sw/hw and fluids. No, you can’t change the SW for the engine. No, you have to use the proprietary motor oil. No you have to buy the battery the dealership because there’s a code that needs to be input into the computer or the car won’t start.

                When you don’t own the vehicle, you don’t get to make decisions on it’s use, or how much it costs to use. If, for some reason, you’re pulled over, the owner can authorized the car to be searched, can unilaterally turn have the car shut down, or, in the case of self driving cars, go where they want the car to go. Oh yes, that’s perfect.

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                  • Dude,
                    You think I’m really concerned with that?

                    I’m on the NSA “list” because I’ve received email from outside the US-particularly from a country that’s not best buds with the USA.

                    I’ve been “interviewed” by a “counter terrorist agent”, ostensibly a “date”, after I applied for a visa to visit a country we’re not on good terms with. (It just MAY have been a date, but hell, I’m counting it :))

                    Think I’m concerned about our future robot overlords? I’m not on the best of terms with our current human (or lizard people) overlords.

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                      • Well, I highly doubt that the gov’t in Beijing would refuse to grant me a visa. After all, I work for a US defense contractor. I was only worried about someone trying to get (non existent) secrets from me. Sadly, no hawt chinese women hit me up for sexy fun times.

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          • How long is your commute Stillwater?
            The driverless car’s adoption, once it’s ready for the road, seems pretty straight forward to me.
            -You get the folks with long commutes or who dislike driving (I’m in the latter group) pretty much immediately.
            -That’s a pretty significant group. They’ll also be a very low risk pool of customers so insurance on those cars will be rock bottom price.
            -That low insurance price is going to lure more people. Every person that switches to a driverless car is one less person to spread the risk over in the driven car risk pool. Controlled cars insurance rates will steadily begin to increase.
            -Toss on the other implications. Park you car? Why? Flip the uber app onto it. You drive to work in your car then while you go to the office your car hits the streets to earn money too like a mechanical hooker. All those manual car owners eye their machines sitting in the parking lots uneasily. The resale value of manual cars isn’t doing well. All the economic indicators are pointing away from them. More people switch. Insurance rates continue to diverge. The pressures increase.

            At some point the insurance on a human driven car is going to be a really expensive product.

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            • Sure, some people will opt to use the tech. Most people won’t. “The market” will not eliminate manual driving cars. I mean, we obvs disagree on that. My contention is that most people like to drive cars. Even in bad traffic.

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              • I’m no insurance expert but I have a feeling that when driverless cars are solidly established insurance companies are going to treat easy “turn on/off” options functionally the same as manual cars.

                I do not know what the numbers are, but I believe you are right in asserting that most people like driving cars. I suspect that number would change a lot when the act of manually driving a car included an attached price premium and I suspect a lot more of those peeps than you think would ditch driving their cars to save a few hundred bucks every six months. The way airlines have gone, for instance, suggests people in aggregate will do and select for absolutely abominable flying conditions to shave a money on their ticket price.

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                • I do not know what the numbers are, but I believe you are right in asserting that most people like driving cars.

                  I don’t think that’s the case.

                  We might like the idea of driving on the kind of road you see in car commercials – winding along between beautiful hills and a shimmering lake, no other traffic in sight, just enough variability that driving is mentally engaging but not so much that we can’t enjoy the scenery.

                  The actual act of the driving that we do on a daily basis – commuting to work in rush hour traffic along the same visually unremarkable arterial roads every morning and evening – makes us absolutely miserable. Almost nothing correlates more negatively with happiness and life satisfaction than spending a lot of time driving.

                  When we take a job with a longer commute in exchange for a raise, we quickly become accustomed to the things we buy with the extra money, so it stops making us happy. But the commute continues to make us miserable, because driving in traffic is a fresh hell every day.

                  The only people for whom commuting is associated with higher happiness and lower stress are those who commute by foot or bicycle.

                  That’s not to say we don’t think we like driving, or at least make life choices that would only make sense if in fact we liked driving. But we don’t, on the whole, actually seem to enjoy it at all.

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                  • The actual act of the driving that we do on a daily basis – commuting to work in rush hour traffic along the same visually unremarkable arterial roads every morning and evening – makes us absolutely miserable.

                    Some of us.

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                    • Here’s an exercise for the reader:

                      Thinking about your commute today, without really making a mental effort, how much do you remember about the drive in (or drive home)?

                      If you mostly remember what was on the radio, or what your carpool was talking about, but the drive itself was largely done on mental autopilot; or if your clearest memory is when someone did something amazingly stupid or reckless, robot cars are for you!

                      If you truly remember the driving itself, and you truly enjoyed it, then you will likely not want to give up your POV.

                      Personally, my daily commute is mostly done on autopilot. The only exception has been when I was on a motorcycle. The excitement of riding a motorcycle is, to me, much more memorable than piloting a car.

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                      • My commute is done on autopilot as well, listening to NPR or a podcast or radio. None of that would change if I were in a self-driving car, tho. Bad traffic is bad.

                        Add: But to clarify, I’m not saying that no one will want the technology or even a statistically appreciable number of people. My contention is merely that most people won’t want it, so claims that manual driving will go the way of the horse-and-buggy in our lifetimes (or ever, really) overstate the tech’s impact.

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                          • No, I’m including that into the mix. If cities had better mass transit systems I think more people would get off the highways. But that points to why I think tech-nerds *over-estimate* autonomous cars’ impact: they predominantly live in urban traffic hellholes. :)

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                    • Most of the people I know would rather not drive if they had the choice. In fact, insofar as I know people who *do* enjoy driving (self included), we skew more tech and more nerd than not. I mean, I’m a librarian! You’re a philosopher! I do know a bunch of local guys who love driving qua driving but they are all either nerdy and/or mechanics and/or in construction. None of which are core sectors any more, none of which add up to the vast majority of people. And I can only imagine that it’s worse (thinking about people I know on the coasts) in places where there is less room. (And yes, I have been stuck in one place on I-25 for 4 hours back in the building T-Rex days. Back east is still worse. Rush hour Seattle is still worse.)

                      Do you know a bunch of non-nerdy people who love driving?

                      I’m not seeing where you’re getting the vastness from.

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                      • My evidence is that people like to drive cars. Your evidence is (apparently) that people don’t like to drive cars. We disagree.

                        My substantive claim in these threads is that autonomous cars will not – contra specific claims made – become universal, by law or culture or markets, in our lifetimes; ie., that most car drivers will still manually “drive” them.

                        I mean, we’re all just guessing here. My guess is different than other folks guess.

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                        • You’re not just guessing about the outcome, you’re also guessing, incorrectly, about the set of claims being made. (” the cultural divide (if you’ll permit me that phrase) on the impact autonomous cars will have on society is limited to tech-nerds who think everyone would be a fool not to get one and the remaining 99% of the population.”)

                          That description factually *excludes* everything I’ve been saying on this thread, which is why I objected.

                          FWIW, my substantive claim for my lifetime is that they won’t become universal, but those of us who cling to them (which will probably include me) will be seen as weird in more or less the same way that most Americans now see gun ownership as weird. (Only a quarter of Americans even own a gun; 3 percent of the American population owns 50 percent of the guns.) And that further more, I won’t actually disagree with them that us car owners are weird, but not to the extent that I think we are fools. (Jay and I also own more than the average number of guns, just not any ammo.)

                          I was asking the question I did because I’m *not* just making arguments that reduce to “nearly everyone feels about cars the way that I do”. (I feel like I will miss driving, because *when I didn’t ever drive I missed driving* and now that I drive about once or twice a week, when I’m not doing it, I miss it even more… but I’m not extrapolating to anyone else. Enjoying risking my neck in a high-speed stop-and-go in an I-25 snowstorm seems…. like an outlier trait, given what I know about humans and risk-taking.)

                          I am literally curious about the spread of people you know who enjoy driving.

                          If you don’t want to talk about your personal experience you don’t have to, but then maybe don’t claim that 99 percent of the population agrees with you and the rest of us all think one thing.

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                          • Maribou, there really isn’t anything at stake here so I’m not sure why you think there’s a determinate answer to the question. We’re guessing. We’ll find out when these vehicles hit the market and during the subsequent years in generational cycles. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. No one knows.

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                                  • I think that’s accurate. Tech-nerds focus on efficiency and opportunity cost and conclude that *everyone* will (rationally!!) want to read or work or knit rather than pay attention to traffic and driving.

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                                    • The *inaccurate part* is that 99 percent of the population is in some kind of clean-cut disagreement with tech nerds.

                                      As if there are only 2 positions being taken on the subject.

                                      Despite evidence to the contrary even *right here on this thread*.

                                      *shrugs*

                                      I’m really not trying to hector you, I’m just frustrated. I’ll stop.

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                                      • Maribou, with respect, now you’re not even making any sense. I’ve already said that there is a market for this technology. That some people will want it. By saying that I’m implying – but I’ve also explicitly stated – that some people won’t.

                                        I could be wrong about that!

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                                        • With respect, you’re not listening to what I’m saying. And telling me that I’m not making any sense is not particularly respectful.

                                          I’ll drop it but if you figure out what I was saying over and over, feel free to respond to that instead of to what I’ve explicitly said several times I’m not saying.

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                                          • Upon reflection, still not getting it. Are you objecting my use of the term “tech-nerds” as a pejorative which encompasses people who don’t satisfy the definition? If so, why would you think my use of that term implies a negative connotation, or think I’m extending it beyond its use?

                                            I think the “debate” we’re having, about the scope, merits and eventuality of self-driving cars, actually *is* driven by tech-nerds. Consumers either will or won’t buy them, depending on their preferences.

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                          • you’re also guessing, incorrectly, about the set of claims being made.

                            The claims I’m objecting to on this thread are 1) Burt’s claim that “The day will come, within our lifetimes (and lots of us are already at or pushing towards middle age) that humans driving cars will become an exhibition sport” and 2) North’s claim that “the market” will eliminate manual-driving cars in the near future.

                            So uh….

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                            • Near future -once there is a reliable self-driving car on the market- just to make sure my position is clear!

                              I think I’ve outlined the mechanisms and methods behind my claim. I have no beef with your rebuttal that most people like to drive cars. Perhaps they do. I just don’t think they like to drive them enough to pay the opportunity cost that the market will apply once an auto-driving car is present within it. That said I think that “most people like to drive cars” while potentially correct, isn’t going to be as definitive as you would think. Everyone else’s responses have made me feel better about that assumption which is a nice present for a Thursday afternoon.

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                              • To your point, Morat mentioned an important vector in the end game: whether you had your car on “auto” or “manual” when you got into that accident. And that’s no small thing, I admit.

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                                • Yeah, I can’t make up my mind to speculate if insurance would A) have three categories (auto, optional or manual) or if they’d B) just have two (Mandatory auto and non-mandatory auto). My inclination leans towards B). Does any of the commentariate work in insurance and have an opinion?

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                                  • It’s also a very political issue. I’m not at all sure how insurance claims for an accident between two self-driving cars would be adjudicated. Someone’s at fault (let’s stipulate), but does liability at that point pass thru the insurance company to the car manufacturer? If so, then what would be increased premium prices are shifted into increased price of autonomous cars.

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                                    • I suspect that, having removed the driver from the equation, insurance companies will move to manufacturers — insurance would be tied to your make and model, and the premiums paid by the car manufacturer.

                                      It’ll get rolled into the price of the car, of course, however I doubt you’d even notice. They’re not going to let them on the road without being better than the average human driver. Probably much better. And they don’t get sick, distracted, or drunk.

                                      If it’s capable of being physically driven, you’d need your own insurance of course, on top of that. Accidents in manual mode would be against your coverage, not the one that came with the car.

                                      If you were in a wreck or even a break down, I suspect you’d just…make a phone call, and all the money issues would be handled behind the scenes. You’d just move your stuff to a rental that drives to you and go about your day. Your car will drive itself to you when it’s fixed, and you swap back.

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                                        • Honestly, any wide-scale fault wouldn’t fall on the car makers — it’d fall on whomever created the hardware or software that failed, assuming you can prove sufficient negligence.

                                          And if they went bankrupt, someone else will snap up their assets and fix them.

                                          I think wide-scale faults are unlikely, although if they don’t get serious about security wide-scale hacks are another question.

                                          Personally, while car-to-car communication would be incredibly helpful, design-wise they should lock those things down so you need an actual physical cable to interact with the systems. Maybe a transponder equivalent, firewalled to hell and back and run over by every white-hat hacker you can find, capable of only sending (and receiving) a specific format with GPS location, vector information, and the VIN.

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                                          • In theory you ought to be able to do car to car communication in a way that only lets the comm data affect route planning in the way the traffic report affects route planning in human driven cars -just with a bit more local focus (stuff that wouldn’t be important enough to make the radio station – congestion that’s likely to pass on a few minutes but if you knew about it you might as well slow down a bit as you approach it)

                                            Theoretically.

                                            But, given that Apple and Microsoft and Oracle and IBM have a heck of a time with security, it really doesn’t seem likely that the folks to show them how it’s done will be the auto industry…

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                      • I know people who love to drive, although almost all of them live somewhere scenic. Very few live in cities or suburbs. of those, most of them ride motorcycles.

                        There’s an easy test to see if you “love driving” or not.

                        You just ask yourself “How often do I, for no reason, drive a very long distance — say at least an hour or so — and back just to be driving?”

                        Not going anywhere, just…driving to be driving.

                        Very few people actually do that. And most that do are in it for the scenery, which I’ve found you can enjoy best by not being the driver.

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                        • Hey, I love driving by that definition. I’ve actually gone driving for 3 or 4 hours to just be driving. Many times. I also love driving by about 50 other definitions including Stillwater’s. There are times when I would rather be stuck in traffic for 3 hours than doing anything else, if the other option is to not be behind the wheel driving a car.

                          Trying to reduce it to “an easy test” is like saying “people only own guns for one reason” and it makes about as much sense.

                          And I actually think a substantial number of Americans are equally imprinted on driving, just not “most” or “vast”.

                          Like I really am somewhere in the middle area here, in terms of what I expect to happen.

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              • “My contention is that most people like to drive cars. ”

                Haw. People rode horses for transport, and there were plenty of people who liked riding horses, and as soon as cars became reasonable affordable riding a horse for transport meant that you were either incredibly rich or shockingly poor. And even faster than that, riding horses was something done for leisure in designated facilities.

                Meaning, once self-driving cars are even slightly a thing, they’ll be the required standard, and manual-drive vehicles will be confined to racing tracks.

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                • The correct analogy would be that if people could ride in rocket ships to get where they were going, they’d give up cars. My point is that they’d still want to “drive” the rocket ship.

                  Edit: The majority. Rich folks and the ambitious and “efficiency geeks” maybe not.

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              • Stillwater: My contention is that most people like to drive cars. Even in bad traffic.

                I think you’re really, drastically wrong here though. Sure, many people, and likely even the majority of car owners find driving to be an enjoyable experience… but…

                For starters, I don’t think they find it a more enjoyable experience than, for example, watching netflix. Opportunity costs must be factored in, and the question isn’t just how much they like driving, but also how much they would enjoy doing the other things they could devote their attention to in the car ride when not driving.

                Next up, a lot of people don’t so much enjoy their own driving as fear being a passenger subjected to the driving of others. My own “I like to drive” is more about feeling like I’m a safer and more reliable driver than the people I typically share a car with. I don’t think I’d have that same notion if I were riding in a self-driving car, because I suspect they’ll have much smoother motion than human-controlled cars.

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                • We’ll see. Autonomous cars are coming so we’ll find out one way or the other. I’m pretty sure, tho, that the cultural divide (if you’ll permit me that phrase) on the impact autonomous cars will have on society is limited to tech-nerds who think everyone would be a fool not to get one and the remaining 99% of the population.

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                  • What about people who would, all told, prefer convenient and reliable public transit but don’t live in places where that is an available thing? That seems like a pretty big group of people to me. Especially since most of ’em have long suburban commutes.

                    Generally speaking, folks *with* convenient and reliable public transit (I’m talking Montreal or Paris quality, for reference) don’t seem to miss cars much. They might still drive them occasionally as a diversion or for long trips, but there’s no real basis for thinking they *prefer* them.

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                  • , I saw a few years back where someone conducted a survey asking the question: Would you pay a $2k price premium for a self-driving car?

                    The results were something like 30% of men and 20% of women said yes. I thought the gender difference was interesting. My guess is it reflects differences in how men and women trust technology in general. Also, the assumption was that s/d cars would be more expensive, but as others have noted, taking insurance into account the total cost of ownership may very well be the same or even lower.

                    In any case, I think your 99% figure is hyperbole (projection?).

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                    • Road,
                      I think it has to do with early adopters, and men waving their… around.
                      I think the actual “this has been tested and works” numbers would have more women than men wanting it… given equal ability to pay, which we don’t have in this country.

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                    • Would you pay a $2k price premium for a self-driving car?

                      Sounds like a good deal:

                      When you ask carmakers and industry researchers the cost of self-driving equipment, they almost always say around $8,000-$10,000. Even if that range were accurate, it could be too high for the mass market—a lot of motorists would probably recoil at paying an added 33% to make their $25,000 car more or less self-driving.

                      But it turns out that the consensus cost estimate is aspirational.

                      “According to one of the few experts prepared to discuss the subject openly: about $250,000 per vehicle.”

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                      • Economies of scale will kick in quickly. The up-front costs are high (software development alone, ye gods — it’s not driving, it’s dealing with human drivers all around), and the prototypes are stuffed with sensors and computing equipment.

                        But more and more modern cars are stuffed with sensors and computing equipment, and most of the sensor networks that are becoming increasingly common are pretty much exactly what’s needed, so we’re closing in on a lot of the hardware.

                        And we’ve proven, well enough, that it’s technically possible (quite a few are driving around now, after all), so we’re past the initial humps.

                        Eventually, it’s going to be….most of the sensors a modern car has, plus a few more, and an extra computer to control it all. Retraining humans will be hard, though.

                        It’s closer than you think, and will end up a lot cheaper. (Especially once you factor in things like savings on insurance. Your car can’t drive drunk, for instance).

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                    • Would you pay a $2k price premium for a self-driving car?

                      Another decade out, when it may be the difference between my wife and I both staying in the house where we will have lived for 40 years by that time, the house that I can clean and where I can cook, but I no longer trust my driving skills or walking stamina? In a heartbeat. So will tens of millions of other Boomers. Maybe the folks two generations behind us will be able to afford a self-driving car to make their commute pleasant. The Boomers and their kids will damned well find a way to pay if it keeps Mom and Dad in their house.

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                      • I agree totally. The survey I was referring to was taken several years ago and I strongly suspect the $2k was pulled directly from someone’s posterior. I was just surprised by the relatively low level of enthusiasm expressed in the results.

                        You know, this is gonna be like a lot of things where the boosters are predicting a revolution but it really ends up being a more evolutionary process.

                        You’ll get the early adopters willing to shell out big bucks for the gee whiz and bragging rights followed shortly by the folks with a compelling usage case, i.e., the elderly, disabled, etc. I think you’ll also see a lot of pressure from trucking companies given the potential increase in driver productivity.

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                        • It’s like any tech. Early adopters will be….very enthusiastic, and everyone else will wait and see.

                          Self-driving cars have a leg up. Unlike a lot of tech, what it does is pretty self-explanatory. The slowdown, once they’re available, will be people learning to trust the tech.

                          That’s gonna take awhile. I mean Toyota had a hard time selling the Prius at first, having to take out ads to explain you didn’t have to plug the thing in. And that was a simple hybrid drive, not a car that drives itself.

                          Early adopters will jump in with both feet, and I can’t really decide if car makers will subsidize them by selling at a loss, or charge them an arm and a leg because they want it so bad.

                          Everyone else will give it a few years.

                          Unless, of course, the trucking industry jumps in. Buying a self-driving car when there are self-driving 18-wheelers and UPS trucks running around is a little less scary.

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                          • I fully expect to drive a truck before I retire that I can put into autodrive on the freeway. But it has to be fully auto. None of this “be ready at a moment’s notice to take over” crap. That would be worse than useless. But if the tech is there the economic case is compelling. Also keep in mind that a semi tractor is already $100k – $150k new. Adding $10k for the tech is no big deal. Some guys pay that much for fancy chrome.

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            • When I was a kid, a car meant “Freedom”. You get a POS car, you get a crap minimum wage job, that meant you could go to the mall. You could go to the arcade. If you just wanted to go “out”, you could go “out”. Hang with your friends. Daydream about going on a date someday. Perhaps even *ACTUALLY* go on a date.

              A car meant so very many things.

              Now? Well, I get the feeling that cars don’t mean the same thing in a world with ‘tubes.

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              • For me, growing up, a car didn’t mean much in the way of freedom. We lived where it was quite convenient to go to most of the places I might want to, on foot or bicycle, and the times I’d want to go somewhere that required a car were a big enough deal that I was planning ahead – so if I was pre-arranging things anyway, pre-arranging a ride goes with the territory.

                This is reflected in the fact that in my lifetime my parents have owned three cars – a 1976 that they kept until about 1998, a 1995 or so that they kept until 2016, and the 2016 that they only got because someone rear-ended the 1995 , and it doesn’t take much to write off a 21 year old car, even one in perfectly good mechanical condition.

                The cars lasted that long because they never did get a lot of mileage on them…

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              • My experience as well, that the meaning of a car has changed from when I was young,

                When we turned 16, my friends would all take the day off school to go to the DMV to take the license test.
                Back then, the test cost a nickel, which had a picture of a bumblebee on it, and we wore an onion tied to our belt which was the fashion at the time.

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    • The day will come, within our lifetimes (and lots of us are already at or pushing towards middle age) that humans driving cars will become an exhibition sport, engaged in on private racetracks. As anachronistic as powering them with gasoline, or owning them yourself (as opposed to the much more sensible and convenient way of hiring them through Lyft or GoogleCommute or some such service that charges you a few pennies per mile and a few pennies per minute).

      I, for one, could see myself coming to prefer this state of affairs.

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      • The day will come, within our lifetimes (and lots of us are already at or pushing towards middle age) that humans driving cars will become an exhibition sport

        This is just not gonna happen. Maybe downtown LA will have an appreciable, and noticeable, percentage of driverless cars, but the vast majority of folks will be behind the wheel yelling and screaming, texting and drinking. People like to drive cars.

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        • How much are people going to be willing to drive cars? As the insurance rates and the cost of parking marches relentlessly upwards? As the traffic increasingly standardizes in flow and if you buck it and make a mistake you run the risk of being at fault for yet another fat bill?
          I think ownership in general will crater in dense suburbs and cities but even in ruralia and less dense suburbs eventually a driverless car would become the norm.

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        • People like to drive cars.

          . They like the freedom driving a car gives them — they go from Point A to Point B on their schedule, not someone else’s.

          They like the capacity a car gives them. “I can keep useful stuff in here, as I go from point A to point B, in case I get to point B and need some of that stuff”.

          But actually driving? The term “road rage” exists for a reason, and that’s because even people who like to drive cars often don’t like to drive cars.

          Self-driving cars? Sign me up. I’ll buy one, even though renting and ride sharing would be cheaper. Why not? I can afford it, I don’t have to worry about forgetting my phone in the rent-a-car, and it makes trips easier.

          Driving a car is how most people get from one point to another. If they can watch TV or take a nap while doing it, they will.

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  6. By some magic I don’t understand, I get phone calls through my car’s sound system. All I have to do is press an icon, listen, and talk. I’m sure there’s a way to make calls, too, but I haven’t figured it out and prefer not to do it anyway.

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  7. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just technology. I see plenty of people driving like idiots and they AREN’T using any kind of electronic devices. They just become assholes on the road. The only comparison I can make is that when they get behind the wheel some people lose all sense of reality and don’t realize that the other people on the road aren’t NPC’s there to fill space, but real people trying to travel, too. I see a lot of crap driving that seems to be at least partially caused by the driver’s total lack of care/concern for other people on the road.

    I think much of this could be solved by self-driving cars. But I also wonder about a-holes trolling the cars: brake checking, etc could make a trip miserable. Of course it would be easier to get a pic of the car/plate to report to the police.

    Just two weeks ago I saw an old man going the wrong way on I-25; I’m still not sure how he did this as there aren’t any confusing interchanges in Pueblo. (extreme example, but not totally uncommon here) Self-driving cars could limit the chaos caused by the elderly, and help them get around.

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  8. Autonomous vehicles are going to change even the relationship we have with cars, I think.

    When you stop being the active driver, the car loses the romantic allure we used to associate with it- the power, the sex appeal.

    And to an even greater degree, how it will disrupt the delivery business. We’ve heard a lot about how it will make human drivers obsolete, but it seems reasonable to think the combination of AI, online shopping, and autonomous vehicles will make delivery companies themselves obsolete.

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  9. A few thoughts from the resident trucker…

    Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood instituted a prohibition on non-hands-free phone use by truckers. The fine is just shy of $3k plus whatever the state/locality dings you for. Quite a disincentive but I still see truckers yakking with a phone to their ear. Personally, I like my noise-cancelling headset.

    My company has a couple of apps specifically for company business (cuts down on phone calls for routine stuff). These apps are disabled when the vehicle is in motion.

    Wrt self-driving cars… I see a lot of folks predicting a day when cars will just autonomously roam around ferrying people from place to place with no driver. Will they also be self-cleaning? Cuz people are people and some are slobs or worse. Folks are gonna leave garbage behind. They’re gonna get a ride home from the bar and puke in the back seat. They’re gonna fornicate in them and leave used condoms and “fluids” behind. Some will use them as mobile restrooms.

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    • You’re definitely right about that regarding renting out the cars Road. I agree entirely and that’s something anyone considering renting out their car would have to consider. The mechanisms for dealing with that, however, are easy enough to imagine. The car will doubtlessly have an internal camera. Some user will book a car then spew all over the inside of the car then get out and stagger home. User #2 will book a car that arrives covered in stale puke. They will recoil in horror, reject the car pressing a button on their app labeled “your car reeks”. The car trundles off to the service center for a deep cleaning and the pukey customer ends up billed. A different car picks up user #2, probably in short order. The car owner gets a message at work about the matter and swears a little, ponders whether renting his car out is worth it, looks at the dough he makes doing so then makes a decision and goes back to work.

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    • I don’t know… rent a self-driving car under an false identity, pack the thing full of explosives, then send it off to a mall or something with a remote detonator. It’s basically a guided missile on wheels.

      I would assume contemplation of these sorts of scenarios is giving someone at Homeland Security some sleepless nights.

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      • No. What’s giving them nightmares is that the communications layer especially, but basically the entire OS and embedded software, was probably written by people who weren’t thinking of security at all.

        Why bother with explosives, when you can hack a dozen cars and turn them into self-guiding missiles? Slam them into other cars, into ambulances, into police, into pedestrians, into store-fronts. Waves of the things, if you find a good enough exploit.

        Not just cars, but 18 wheelers. For double worry, hack one carrying something toxic or explosive.

        It terrifies me. See, the problem with security on the internet is the backbone of the ‘net — tcp/ip, wasn’t designed with security in mind. They made it open by design. Security, on the internet, is layers upon layers of after the fact patches.

        And really, self-driving cars come into their own when they can communicate with each other. Which means….they’re sharing data, which means they’re open to hacking attempts. Jailbreak a car and it can lie about it’s position and vector, and you’re ready to screw up traffic a world away.

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        • I don’t disagree with one word of that. And that’s another reason I’m looking sideways at these car-sharing scenarios. I don’t see how you pull that off without them being networked for dispatch. And that’s just going to be a huge vulnerability that you’re never going to really plug.

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          • I mean there’s stuff you can do. Make it harder. Among other things, you can physically isolate the car’s system (except that transponder, which I don’t think they’ll be able to resist using — the benefits of cars having them is very high), you can ensure it relies on it’s own sensors above any transmitted data.

            If you just have one communications channel, with a specific and simple format, you can make it a lot harder.

            Basically, if you force hackers to either physically access the vehicle — especially if you can force them to replace or alter hardware — you can reduce the security problem down to, well, about what it is now.

            Except you also get rid of all the crap drivers, so….fair trade.

            I just wish I had more faith the folks designing this system were thinking like black hats.

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            • morat20,
              Do I really need to show you the video of the google cars doing donuts in the parking lot?
              Hackers are in on this one (aka they’ve already hacked the damn things, and got the “fix your wireless security” patch out), pretty deep. (shouldn’t surprise, who else knows how to push pedal to the metal).

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            • You’ve been writing code professionally for how many years now? You know damn well somebody who barely understands how computers work will think it’s a great idea to have this undisclosed communication channel in the software, just in case, or because we might want to implement this feature at a later date, etc., and they’ll insist it’s installed, and deadlines will ensure it isn’t properly disabled, and someone will figure out how to force it to activate…

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              • Yep, I know. On the bright side, unlike baking TCP/IP into the spine of everything, at least self-driving cars can be protected a bit better.

                Among other things, users are supposed to be walled off from the computer system, instead of surfing dodgy porn.

                You can also mitigate damage, and that might even be done from the beginning. Hardwire in sensor data as top priority, and handle the crash routines on a hardware (or at least embedded system that requires physical access to update) level. Basically if your car is looking at an impact, no software command can override the bottom level “Stop” command. Add in a damage lock, so that in cases of impact the car will shut down and will no move without physically restarting it (or perhaps even require an unlock) so that you can’t keep careening a hacked car through people.

                There’s a lot you can do, but we also live in a world where people put wifi in toaster’s so….

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                • , — You guys are so focused on the issue of the cars being hacked or hijacked that you’re ignoring the potential for them to simply to be used exactly as designed, no hacking required. Just rent one – presumably under an assumed name – pack the trunk full of explosives with some manner of triggering device, program it for a destination, and send it on its merry way.

                  It’s just a car bomb like you hear about all the time, but with no driver that has to be willing to die for the cause. Drone warfare on wheels.

                  I suppose you could require there be at least a passenger in the car when it’s moving, which would make it just a regular old suicide mission again. But a big usage scenario / selling point is the idea of your car dropping you off at work or wherever, parking itself or whoring itself out to Uber for the day, then picking you back up to go home.

                  There’s a lot of shenanigans you can devise firewalls and such to guard against, as you so aptly discuss, but none of that speaks to this particular scenario.

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                  • Nothing stops you from doing that with a car now. Pack it full of explosives, drive it somewhere, leave.

                    Working with explosives is, you know, dangerous, easy to screw up, and often requires purchasing traceable chemicals that make law enforcement pay attention to you.

                    Worst of all, it’s actual work you have to get out and do.

                    Once there’s a car hack, if it doesn’t involve hardware alterations, we’re talking script-kiddie levels of effort that can take charge of hundreds or thousands of cars at once.

                    You can’t make anything perfectly safe, but every barrier you place in the way of misusing it turns away a sizable percentage of people up to no good.

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          • Road,
            Of course they’re networked for dispatch.
            Same as package delivery drones.

            That’s not really the same sort of vulnerability as “spoofing” though.
            That’s “Rolling Roadblock” territory… which, again, people have already done without the shiny tech. (Yes, that’s the sort of goddamn prank pulled on interstates. Complete traffic jam for miles for no reason at all).

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        • morat20,
          I… wouldn’t worry about this quite so much as you do.
          There is an AI program that knows how to hack.
          It’s willing to offer a limited subset of itself to put into cars (probably mine bitcoins with spare cpu).

          It… likes eating viruses.

          Communication yes, but you KNOW you’re going to have a backup of “I see you” — which will doublecheck where cars are.
          Yes, this will cost CPU cycles, but CPU is cheap these days.

          And since you need it anyway for non-wired cars (or misbehaving wired cars, which is your use case above).

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  10. It’s weird the way the world can comment on our thoughts.

    I assume Will was working on this on or before Halloween. Risk and the road. Some risks are harder to see coming than others.

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