Monthly Archives: August 2015

Objects in mirror are not the self-driving singularity

I’ve been meaning to do a post on automation and its effects on employment, and then I remembered Megan McArdle’s column on self-driving trucks.

Those of us eager for the real 21st century to finally kick in had been given a kick in the shins when she threw cold water on the idea. Her analysis, and the article she comments on, are both worth reading.

To make a long story short, Scott Santens of Medium.com wrote that 8.7 million trucking-related jobs are at risk.

But McArdle says, not so fast. The technology isn’t as ready as they suggest:

You hear a lot about how Google cars have driven an amazing number of miles without accidents. You hear less, however, about how they have achieved this feat: by 3-D mapping every inch of those roads so that the car has a database of every stationary object, from traffic lights to guardrails. That allows the car to devote its processing power to analyzing the movement of objects that aren’t in its database.

Such mapping is incredibly labor intensive, which is why, according to Lee Gomes, those amazing mile counts that Google’s driverless cars are racking up “are the same few thousand mapped miles, driven over and over again.” Most of them are near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, a place that gets only 15 inches of rain a year and never has snow or ice — three common weather hazards that long-haul truckers must frequently contend with.

Granted, this is good news for truckers, taxi drivers, and their accountants, but that’s another debate.

It’s disappointing for the geeks among us waiting for the next tech leap to arrive. It sounds almost like Google’s car is little more than a souped-up Roomba.

Truthfully, I was surprised when I first read there’d been so much progress in self-driving cars. I thought it would still be a while before our computers are smart enough to handle traffic. Evidently, I was right.

I do think there are reasons for optimism. Processing power will keep improving. To me, the key is making computers smarter. That’s been happening, and it will continue, but we already knew that.

But what’s more interesting is to consider that this is part of the development process. And here’s the key: You don’t hold off software development just because the processing power isn’t there yet. There are other challenges to making self-driving cars. Companies like Google are getting those things out of the way so that the software will be ready when the hardware is.

As for those lost jobs, that’s a big problem, and worth another post.