Monday, May 25, 2015

Self-Driving Cars Don't Care What You Think

Let's hope that self-driving cars aren't also self-designing.

Fully-automated is where cars have been headed all along.

There’s a problem with the terms “self-driving” and “autonomous" — the terms most commonly used to describe cars that require no human operation — namely, they don’t mean what people think they mean. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still true.

Every car ever made is a “self-driving” car, literally speaking. As is implied by the word “automobile,” cars are machines that move under their own power. Which is why some prefer the term “autonomous” over “self-driving,” although that, too, is wrong. To be autonomous (as opposed to automated — the more precise term), a car would require no input from any outside source, whereas Google’s self-driving car, for example, relies on communication with other vehicles, with GPS satellites, and with the cloud.

There’s an esoteric bit of eggheadery out there called the technological imperative (sometimes referred to as the inevitability theory) which holds that once a technology becomes possible it will inevitably exist. In other words, mankind will always be compelled to move technology forward, if only because it seems like the right thing to do, which makes it seem as though technology has a will of its own.

This explains why no matter who you discuss the subject with — industry analyst, sociologist, drunk guy at the bar — they invariably speak in terms of “when” self-driving cars arrive, rather than “if.” Even those who acknowledge the multifold roadblocks guaranteed to delay the self-driving car’s arrival admit that its coming is inevitable. Because it is.

According to a study titled “Autonomous Cars: Not if, but when,” published by IHS Auto, “It is expected that the autonomous car technology will have a long-term impact on the auto industry and is likely to have a positive impact on auto sales and autos in-use after 2035.”

This pictograph is believed to be the first depiction of wheeled transport. But let's be real; it could just as easily be a bass guitar with a barren tree in the distance.
Not everyone believes in technological determinism, however. As an article in the MIT Technology Review states, “Among historians and sociologists who study the interactions of technology and society, ideas about necessity and inevitability are now considered laughable.”

Part of the reason both terms are incorrect is that they both imply that there is a “will,” or indeed a “self,” at work somewhere deep inside the machinery of a car. On the one hand this is nothing but a bit of linguistic shorthand -- anthropomorphizing helps us to understand complicated systems. On the other hand, there are those who believe that all technological developments are inevitable.

But advances in automotive technology do seem to follow the patterns one would expect from deterministically decreed technology. Auto companies don’t necessarily want to create complicated new technology to keep us safe, and car buyers aren’t choosing to always buy the safest cars, yet the technology advances, because it’s considered good for society.

As a recent report on automated cars published by Eno Trans, a nonprofit, bipartisan think tank dedicated to automotive technology, put it, “Automated vehicles have the potential to fundamentally alter transportation systems by averting deadly crashes, providing critical mobility to the elderly and disabled, increasing road capacity, saving fuel, and lowering emissions.”

Who is going to say no to that?

Examined under the microscope of the inevitability theory, each major advance in the history of automotive technology can easily be seen as another step in the unstoppable evolution of the self-driving car.

The story of the automobile began all the way back around 3200 BC, when the newly conceived axle was first mated with the already-three-hundred-year-old wheel. With that one glorious act of technological copulation, one of the six simple machines was born.

Early wheeled-transport was, understandably, terribly inefficient. One needed to push (the word “drive” literally means “push,” or “urge forward”) or pull one’s cart, chariot, or carriage, or else one needed to employ an animal or a slave. The steam engine (which led to the very first automobile, the Cugnot Steam Trolley, in 1769), along with its successors the electric engine (the first automobile engine to gain popularity) and the internal-combustion engine, finally liberated vehicles from the performance limitations of horses and other beasts of burden.

The evolution of the automobile sped into overdrive with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and ever since then, the amount of human effort required to operate a vehicle has steadily diminished as technology has advanced.

The introduction of the electric starter in 1911 meant that one no longer needed to turn a crank to initiate the engine’s rotation. Not only did crank-starting require a good bit of strength, but it posed potential dangers; a single kickback of the engine could result in broken fingers, wrists, or arms.

Air conditioning meant that women were now free to wear a hat and gloves no matter the season.
Single brake pedals replaced the pedal-and-stick configurations found in most cars in 1922, and just a year later hydraulic brakes made bringing your vehicle to a dead stop no more difficult than applying gentle pressure with one foot.

Driving was getting so effortless by the mid-1920s that it became standard for car cabins to be outfitted with radios to keep their “drivers” entertained.

One of the last bits of a driver’s physical connection to the mechanical operation of the auto was removed in the late 1930s with the advent of automatic transmissions, which replaced friction clutches with fluid couplings and combined them with a hydraulically-controlled planetary gearbox, eliminating the need for the driver to engage with a car’s transmission while the vehicle was in motion.

With automobile operation now mostly automated, increasing attention was paid to the comfort of riders. In 1939, Packards became the first cars to be offered with optional air conditioning, which meant that wealthy car buyers could now be spared not only the difficulties of physical labor, but the inconveniences of climate as well.

With lane-departure control, adaptive cruise, and park assist, your car can be a much better driver than you. What do you have to say for yourself now, mister human being?

The most significant piece of automated car technology – cruise control – was first introduced on Chrysler vehicles in 1958. This took all control except for steering and, potentially, braking, out of the hands of humans. When cruise control was coupled with forward-sensing radar to create the first adaptive cruise control in 1995 (on the Mitsubishi Diamante), one of the primary operations of a fully automated car became an available option.

It’s tempting to think of these more recently developed “intrusive” features, like adaptive cruise control, traction control, and emergency brake assist, as early signs that cars are inching toward full robothood, but that’s only because those systems literally take control away from us while we are attempting to exert it. We’ve been doing next to nothing for a very long time.

Which gets back to the semantics of “driving.” The way we (meaning average, nonprofessional drivers) interact with our cars is completely analogous to how a carriage driver interacts with a horse. What we do is instruct them to move forward, and we control their velocity and direction. What they do is convert a liquid (or electricity, or both) into enough kinetic energy to get us wherever we want to go and keep us comfortable and entertained. Our primary job is to keep them from crashing.

Up until recently, human interaction with cars has been necessary because cars lacked the ability to monitor their surroundings. But a modern car outfitted with cameras, radar, sonar, and GPS can not only know what’s going on around it, it can react in time to prevent or avoid an accident, something the vast majority of drivers lack the skill to do.

Although the car was conceived as a way to efficiently transport human beings, we human beings have now become the weak link in its operational chain. Cars could be more efficient, more eco-friendly, and safer if drivers were taken out of the equation.

And since they can be, the inevitability theorists claim, so they shall be, regardless of what you and I, or any living human, might want.

Originally published 8/4/2014 on Web2Carz

A Journey Through Space and Time with Jaguar's Best Car in Years

2014 Jaguar F-Type S Convertible Review

The first slimy invertebrate to puff up its newly mutated air sacs and leave the roiling oceans of early Earth to traverse the dry surfaces set the template for all future human beings, who did little else but migrate to all corners of the planet. Then, having become the uncontested masters of the surface world, they devised ever faster and more efficient means of moving through the land by first cultivating an understanding of the physical properties of the universe and then inventing technologies to exploit them.

The story of this journey through evolution and history envelopes all desire, all labor, all survival—all of it pulsating through time at an undiminishing rate of speed as if single-minded in its unwavering determination to arrive at this precise moment. Here, now, behind the wheel of this Jaguar F-Type, top open, barreling down Chicago's North Avenue toward nowhere in particular, having come from back there ... somewhere—none of that matters though. All that counts is now. This second. In this car.

It feels strange to talk about "this car" when relating the experience of driving the F-Type. Because, from the perspective of the only person who matters—the person driving this car at this moment—there is no car, there's only me. And in fact, there really isn't even me. There's just pure unfiltered religious-experience-grade dopamine coursing through whatever it is stuff courses through in this vague, insignificant locus of pleasurable sensations I call me.

At its very best, a car is a kind of open circuit. You sit inside, and you close the circuit. When the engineers have done their jobs, and the overseers and signer-offers and middle managers haven't managed to completely dilute the formula, a car is no longer just a four-wheeled mechanical sedan chair, it's a prosthetic device. It's a set of wings. It's the One Ring.

The F-Type is such a car. On its face it's absurd. It starts at $92,000, seats two, and has a trunk with room enough only for a set of clubs (the main reason trunks still exist), a small Tiffany's box, and several pieces of paper. It gets 16 miles to the gallon (that's city mileage, but try getting much better while still having fun), and once you add all the options that of course you're going to add because who on earth buys a base-model Jaguar, the price jumps up over $100,000.

Yes, yes, but what is money, other than a theoretical construct meant to facilitate trade? Money is a concept that, like all concepts, becomes increasingly abstract the more time you spend behind the flat-bottomed wheel of this magnificent mischief-making machine. Spend a few hours driving the F-Type and it begins to seem increasingly less like an extravagant and irresponsible waste of money, and more like the very thing money was created to obtain.

There is nothing in all of creation that can justify the existence of a 495 horsepower supercharged V-8 engine, especially one tucked under the bonnet of what is, let's be honest, a toy for the merger-makers and the money hoarders. But as any billionaire will tell you, it's not getting the thing that matters, it's what having the thing gets you—which in this case is pure skin-shedding, higher-plane reaching, physical and spiritual ecstasy on demand.

Mesmerized by the warp and weft of everyday living, we sometimes forget that we live in a magical age. We live in the future. Electrical impulses, microwaves, radio waves, and millions of wi-fi signals crowd the air. Power lines shuttle electricity hundreds of miles to light our way, to heat our homes, to cool our shopping malls, and to actuate the various boxes of light into which we spend the majority of our days staring. Man-made orbs circle our planet in a geosynchronous ballet, beaming their signals down to Earth as we beam our own back up to them. Airplanes whizz through the atmosphere as if they'd been there since the dawn of time.

None of this would have even been conceivable to the young Messrs. Lyons and Walmsley, who in the 1920s saw a bright future in building motorcycle sidecars. Little did they know that their modest Swallow Sidecars concern would go on to become one of the premier automotive brands in the world (Swallow became SS Cars Ltd., which, after WWII was changed, for obvious reasons, to Jaguar) before being purchased (and nearly ruined) by Ford before being purchased again and brought back from the brink by Tata Motors.

That's all ancient history of course, because the capital N Now is all that matters, thanks to this seductively supple brain-state-alteration device called the F-Type. The two Williams may not have conceived of this car specifically, but they definitely knew a thing or two about the power of transportation. These were, after all, the men who build the XK engine, which powered every Jaguar made between 1948 and 1971.

You see, transportation is a stealthy word. It conjures up images of crowded bus stations and smog-choked interstates, but to be transported -- now that's something magical. Even if we're only talking buses and trains and Toyota Camrys, think about it: you start out in one place and you end up in another, with very little—if any—effort exerted. That's what I mean about the future. That's what I mean about now.

But this, this sinuous, prowling, mechanical singularity called F-Type—sure, it transports you physically, but the thing it does best, the thing it was designed, engineered, and built to do, is to transport you psychically. This is transportation as experienced by epileptics, mystics, and takers of psychedelic substances. This isn't transportation in the sense of "getting to" but "moving beyond."

In this car, now, there are so many sensory events occurring at once—the shockingly violent yawp of the exhaust, sounding as if it's from the engines that power the very fires of hell; the pulsating vibrations of the tires skimming over the surface of the road; the vapor trails from streetlights that streak past too quickly for their light to reach my eyes—that the mind can barely register them each individually.

Rather, all optical, aural, neural, hormonal, circulatory, lymphatic, and muscular stimuli eddy and swirl together in a miasmic fury to create one singular overarching metasensation—one that is more than the mere adrenal thrill of speed, more than the Grandinian hug of the seat bolsters, more than the lizard-brain-tapping ego gratification of being seen in such an envy-evincing motor car—it's the feeling of being wired in to what Henri Bergson called the elan vital, the life essence.

This is not driving. This is surfing atop the throb and thrum of creation itself. This is a spinal infusion of Fuck Yes. Call it prana, call it qi, or call it consciousness itself. Names don't matter. Nothing matters. Only here, now, in this car.