Myth: Self driving vehicles will not work well in rain or snow.
Reality: Vehicles operate perfectly well in snow.

Some of my readers fabricate stories about why driverless cars will not work. Others make claims that are easily disputed by a simple check.

Let’s take a look at some reader comments and my replies. I do so in form of an article because it it tiring to reply to the same kinds of arguments over and over again in comments to posts.

Let’s also take a look beyond the 2022-2024 time frame. Issues like insurance, batteries, gasoline, and even car ownership come into play. How soon?

Myth and Fantasy Scenarios

In response to Ford Targets 2021 for Mass-Market Self-Driving Car: 2021 a Near Certainty, reader “alexaisback” commented …

Mish is again mishing many points. I have corrected him before I will do so again briefly.

A. As of this date regardless of manufacturer, No vehicle can drive in heavy rain or snow. None. Zero. And NONE have any idea how to do so, in fact few if any have attempted it.

B. In order to do so, in the future, the roadway and highway will require multiple signs and demarcations, in order for the computer to orient itself. Significant investment would have to be made in roads.

This in and of itself will require enormous government subsidy ( State Fed and Local)
something the ” trucking ” industry simply does not have the political weight for.
What the Trucking Unions will roll over and allow the Fed Gov to subsidy them out of business ?

C. The moral programming will hit a brick wall.

What happens when the computer determines:

An accident is about to happen – A school bus is coming at me –

i. If I turn right to avoid the accident and onto the sidewalk I kill a pedestrian.

ii. If I turn left to avoid the accident I kill a bicycle rider.

No One has determined how to program for morality.


Snow Reality

Dateline January 11, 2016: Wired reports The Clever Way Ford’s Self-Driving Cars Navigate in Snow.

Humans typically make their best guess, based on visible markers like curbs and other cars. Ford says it is teaching its autonomous cars to do something similar.

Like other players in this space, Ford is creating high-fidelity, 3D maps of the roads its autonomous cars will travel. Those maps include details like the exact position of the curbs and lane lines, trees and signs, along with local speed limits and other relevant rules. The more a car knows about an area, the more it can focus its sensors and computing power on detecting temporary obstacles—like people and other vehicles—in real time.

Those maps have another advantage: The car can use them to figure out, within a centimeter, where it is at any given moment. Say the car can’t see the lane lines, but it can see a nearby stop sign, which is on the map. Its LIDAR scanner tells it exactly how far it is from the sign. Then, it’s a quick jump to knowing how far it is from the lane lines.

“We’re able to drive perfectly well in snow,” says Jim McBride, Ford’s head of autonomous research. “We see everything above the ground plane, which we match to our map, and our map contains the information about where all the lanes are and all the rules of the road.” Problem solved.

Ford says it tested this ability in real snow last month at Mcity, the fake town built for self-driving vehicles. This idea of self-locating by deduction itself may not be unique to Ford, but the automaker’s the first one to publicly show it can use its maps to navigate on snow-covered roads.

This doesn’t mean all the problems with autonomous driving in bad weather are solved. Falling rain and snow can interfere with LIDAR and cameras, and safely driving requires more than knowing where you are on a map—you also need to be able to see those temporary obstacles. You know, like other people. But still, it’s nice to see one more challenge resolved as we move closer to the day when “driving” is something you save for the golf course.

Purposely Snarky Reply

Points A and B by “alexaisback” are clearly false.

Point C is is simply ridiculous. What about meteors? 80-year old women on roller skates? Mercy! Please be serious with Luddite fantasies, otherwise morality will have us going back to horses.

At the risk of being too snarky (because I am fed up with fallacies posted as facts), please do a little research before posting total nonsense about what can and cannot be done.

Driverless vehicles are coming. Period. 2021 is a reasonable time-frame for cars (not necessarily widespread adoption). Long haul trucks on highways will likely be first.

My own target for mass deployment (eliminating millions of long-haul trucking jobs) is a “pessimistic” 2022-2024.

3-D mapping of expressways will not take long. Competition ensures technology will improve rapidly.

On expressways, worries about little old women on roller skates, with dogs and cats running around, while a driver of a school load of bus kids heads straight for a truck, as a child on a bicycle decides to cross the street will not come into play.

Theft Once Again

Reader “Yasda” comments …

Hacking these things (self driving trucks) will be hilarious. I can think of at least a dozen exploits without even trying. But the most basic one is forcing them off the road to steal their contents. Doesn’t even require any tech.

No driver, so wrecking the truck has no consequences beyond the theft itself. These things will be easy prey on any lonely highway across the country. Some will do it just for the fun on it, others for the profit. Either way, the losses will be enormous.

Every time I write about driverless technology, the issue of theft comes up in a comment, and I take time to reply to the comment, to point out the silliness of it all.

Let’s put this in a post so I can easily refer back to it.

Trucks will be more secure. Doors will lock. If the door opens when it’s not supposed to, someone will be notified. If the truck is not where it is supposed to be someone, including the police with be notified.

The idea that someone can break into a truck, unload it, or steal it and get very far is patently absurd. Yet, invariably someone brings this up with every discussion.

Common Sense Reply

Reader Dean analyzes the situation correctly …

Evidenced by many of these comments, people continue to fear technology and resist change. There will be risk of auto accidents with self-driving cars. There will be people who die as a result of buggy software. As the technology rolls out and those bugs are minimized the rates of accidents and fatalities will diminish. Compared to human drivers the rate of fatalities should be much lower, probably dramatically.

What people fail to see is that money is what will drive the progress. Large companies can either save money by using vehicles without drivers or make money by selling these vehicles. These large companies will push legislation and control the politicians. Like it or not the technology will arrive and grow quickly.

All this talk about Tesla is nonsense. They pushed out software before it was ready. Eventually, a company had to be on the bleeding edge of this technology. Tesla will work out the bugs and continue to push on. That’s how technology advances.

I still remember so many people that feared the microwave oven but the majority embraced the technology. Yes, there are still those who resist using a microwave oven but my point is that technology will continue to push forward while a small percentage resist. It took a while for people to use bank ATMs yet it became second nature. There are still some that refuse to use an ATM but that does not mean banks will cater to the minority. Banks, along with most business, stand to increase profits with automation.

Fear of Change

Reader Dean touches on an important concept: Fear of change.

Many will not want to give up driving their cars. But others, especially those with night vision issues will welcome the idea.

This is 2016. The year 2022 is a long way off. Technology is advancing amazing fast. It’s fearful so people doubt it will happen.

Yet, there is an enormous incentive to get rid of paid truck drivers who can only operate 10 or so hours a day, when driverless truck can go non-stop.

Regulations are behind, but they will catch up. Competition in this space is intense. Competition guarantees success, sooner rather than later.

Accident rates for driverless vehicles will drop. Snow-related accidents for driverless vehicles will plunge. The issue of “chains” came up a couple times. Services will exist to put on chains if required.

Looking Further Ahead

One reader commented I was overly obsessed with this topic. Actually, I am simply looking ahead to the possibilities.

Driverless technology is the next major disruptive change, with enormous implications across a number of industries.

As the technology improves and the early adopters come on, others will follow. Then, as adoption progresses, insurance costs will drop for driverless vehicles and soar for cars with steering wheels.

At some point, there will be a huge switch to driverless vehicles. But will people own them or rent them on demand?

Millions of city-livers will question the reason to have a car at all!

On-demand rentals will take hold. Uber, Lyft, and competitors will take over. Along with long-haul truck drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers will vanish as well. The cars will not even have steering wheels.

Neither car insurance companies nor car manufacturers nor traditional car rental companies will look like they do today. Demand for gasoline will drop as battery technology finally takes hold.

Some of these scenarios will not happen en masse by 2022. However, the stage is set for major disruption to start no later than that date.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock