Conflicts around the connected car expose conundrums beyond IT

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy December 20, 2015
The connected car as a metaphor for the future is presenting fresh challenges. We need to think more broadly about what this means and how it plays out.

Last week, Keith Naughton's Humans Are Slamming Into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw, drew mine and colleagues attention in a spirited conversation on Facebook. In essence, the article is saying that by following the laws of the road, the Google driverless car is ignoring the practical if not-quite-so-lawful rules of the road. My view was that:

The title and the way the story is framed tells you all you need to know about the US view of where laws need adjusting. I'm calling this out as BS. It is NOT the driverless car causing accidents as implied by the article but drivers not following the laws of the road.

Now - is there an argument for tweaking the driverless car to be more 'human?' Perhaps but assuming and assigning blame to the car that follows laws written with a purpose in mind - your and my safety - is plain madness.

Others quickly piled in. Jeff Nolan's argument, which goes back nearly three years is particularly interesting:

This is the challenge for all next generation technology to overcome, which is the requirement to adapt to situations that develop based on activities and patterns that are emerging in realtime. It’s not just a matter of more sensors and faster reaction times but a fundamentally different way of looking at software frameworks, and truth be told I have no insight to what the Google car is built on but one thing is clear, being able to parallel park or get from point A to B without incident is the least of their challenges.

Lastly, I am really excited about the prospect of self-driving vehicles. As much as I enjoy driving there is no doubt I would equally appreciate flipping into self-driving mode so I can take a call or read something or simply check out on my way home. On the commercial side, self-driving vehicle technology can remake logistics networks and shift commercial traffic patterns to have less impact on commute periods or reroute dynamically based on events that are happening. It’s exciting stuff.

It seems many of us are excited about the future potential of transportation. SAP's Connected Vehicle Platform in Palo Alto, referenced by  in Why connected cars are poised to have a fundamental impact, makes a broader statement about where the technology goes. But while such discussions paint an attractive picture of the future upon which I'm sure both Nolan and Dari would agree, it doesn't solve the conundrum exposed by the 'key flaw' argument as it relates to the driverless aspect of this general shift.

Oliver Marks takes a more pointed and arguably cynical view:

I don't think it's bs Den. It's more about the experimental new anodyne programing of a brand new piece of automation taking baby steps in a culture of human control of transportation vehicles that has been in place for around a 100 years.

It will take a long time to make this work with humans and to me is a classic example of the silicon valley 'we can automate this, sit back and let us take over' naivety.

Remember when people used to say 'our latest understanding of' when bringing up scientific ideas? Now the latest data is unequivocally correct and any dissent is labelled 'denier' etc. Tricky times...

Where to from here?

I worry that the 'practical' arguments fail to take into consideration the reality that there are many accidents and deaths on the roads while ignoring the fact that Google's driverless cars have only been held 'to blame' in less than a handful of all reported accidents. In short, whoever laid down the laws of the road got it right. However, I can equally see an argument for changing those laws at a point when the number of driverless cars is way higher than it is today. We know that Google is tweaking its algorithms to make the driverless car more 'human' but I'm not convinced that's the correct way forward.

The much broader question centers around driving as an experience. Uber and Lyft are displacing a level of vehicle ownership in some cities (I don't own a car in the US, have not driven any vehicle now for over seven months, and don't miss it.) Will the future potential be enough to persuade us that the technology and intelligence being driven (sic) into the next generation of vehicles is enough to change attitudes and behaviors?

These are as much 'change management' questions as apply to the introduction of new technology in any business. The difference is only one of scale. Like others, I see this as a long game with many experiments, failures and pivots to come. But just as we will gasp and groan at the new-new things, we will have to come to terms with a future where we swap convenience and connectedness for control and...possibly a few thrills. The extent to which that impacts the laws surrounding these technologies is a debate journey we're only just starting to embark upon. It is one that we should all watch with interest.

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