Motor Mouth: Autonomous driving progress is the stuff of nightmares

Now here’s one even your ultra-paranoid Motor Mouth didn’t think of. The first casualties of the automobile’s upcoming autonomous revolution might not be cab drivers. They might not even be the 3.5 million or so long- and short-haul truckers who jobs are also threatened. Instead, the first ‘career’ that might go MIA as cars begin driving themselves is…

Pizza delivery drivers.

Yep, the preferred part-time employment for college students and the recently-arrived could be the first casualty of the artificially-intelligenced automobile, Ford and Domino’s recently announcing a trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in which customers can choose between having their pie delivered by a (semi) sentient human being or an autonomous vehicle. If the mozzarella deficient choose AV delivery, said Pepperoni, Honolulu Hawaiian or Extravaganza — Domino’s’ most popular pies — will be loaded into special containers in self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrids, which the hungry consumer will access via a delivery code. Though currently in the experimental phase — there’ll be a “safety driver” in every Ford/Domino’s pizza wagon — the idea, of course, is to dispense with the need for a human (and perhaps even the steering wheel they might manage) in the near future.

The upside for consumers is that there will be no delivery boy to tip; the downside — and this might be significant because a Michigan winter can be as inclement as our own — you’ll have to gather your “Republican” (’s designation for a pie slathered in green peppers, onions and pepperoni) at the curb. The upside for Domino’s is the same as it is for every other modern cost-cutting enterprise; the minor uptick in capital expenditure is more than offset in not having to pay Gordon — the hapless pizza boy in Two and a Half Men — even minimum wage.

But we were expecting such repercussions. What continues to astound is the rapidity of the revolution. Along with the Ford/Domino’s announcement comes news this week that our very own Magna International has developed what might be the most advanced autonomous driving platform yet. Like other such technologies, Magna’s MAX4 is a compendium of computers, cameras, radar, LIDAR and ultrasonic gadgetry. What makes Magna’s latest development important, however, is that MAX4 can be integrated into any existing or future platform, the former truly impressive since most add-on systems are a hodge-podge of unsightly warts on an otherwise streamlined skin and often compromise cargo capacity as well. Indeed, Magna claims the entire system can be hidden from view, the only physical indication that you’re driving an autonomous automobile being an actuating button and a small digital interface similar to what current cars use for adaptive cruise control systems.

Nor is that the only development that shows how rapidly we’re jumping into the self-driving game. Last week, Qualcomm took the wrappers off its latest C-V2X technology that promises to connect your car — to quote the American telecommunications giant — “to everything.” Thus, not only will the new chipset allow vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication so you car can talk to other vehicles and things like traffic signals, your future Ford, Audi or Peugeot — that’s who’s signed up to test the new technology so far — will communicate with pedestrians (V2P) and some all-controlling network (V2N). According to Qualcomm, not only does C-V2X allow “non-line of sight sensing” and “enhanced situational awareness”, it will also be able to “convey intent” by using data (such as the first indication that a steering wheel is being turned) to alert your car of an upcoming sudden lane change ahead.

As powerful as all this technology is, many experts agree that this only gets us to level 4 autonomy — to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, self-driving all of the roads some of the time — the limitations being the ability of the systems’ programmer to imagine all of the calamities we humans can conjure. To get to the next level — Level 5, which, crediting America’s greatest orator yet again, is all of the roads all of the time — will require modern society’s current boogieman, artificial intelligence.

Inevitably — as I’ve already discussed here — there will be obstacles that have not been programmed into a self-driving vehicle’s “brain” and, to be truly autonomous, said automobile will have to “learn” how to deal with/circumvent these situations without human input. In other words, whether it’s machine learning (feeding a computer huge reams of data, often pictures, so it can recognize, say, different formats of stop signs) or deep learning (an even more powerful process that uses a “neural network” to simulate a human brain’s method of learning) computerized cars will have to acquire skills beyond what we build into them if we really do want them to drive completely autonomously.

Now, at the risk of repeating Motor Mouth’s past, what’s bothersome/troubling/downright disconcerting is how little we really understand about artificial intelligence. As detailed in another previous Motor Mouth, even the people who program some of this “learning” software aren’t quite sure how it works. Then there’s Vladimir Putin, who many media claimed said that Russia sees artificial intelligence as the key to world domination. Never mind that what he actually said, according to Russian state media, was “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” artificial intelligence may nonetheless be the “atomic proliferation” hobgoblin of our day.

Even autonomous driving’s leading proponent — Tesla’s Elon Musk — is scared you-know-what-less of artificial intelligence, most recently getting into a feud with Mark Zuckerberg and chastising Facebook’s CEO for not grasping the perils of AI. Yet, to show just how complicated are the ethical, moral and practical dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence, Musk recently unveiled his Neuralink initiative, of which the main goal is to develop a chip that could be inserted inside our brains to allow us to communicate with AI-enabled computers.

Why is that important to a car column?

Well, just recently, Three Square Market, a vending machine software firm, offered its employees the opportunity to inject microchips into their hands. Incredibly, according to the New York Times, more than 50 of Three Square’s 80 employees signed up. That’s an bone-chilling conquest ratio for a microchip that does nothing more than allow the now “connected” employees to open locked doors or pay for food in the cafeteria without reaching into their wallet for their identification badge or credit card. Imagine, then, the reception if a more sophisticated implant could solve all of the aggravation of modern day driving and the havoc that could be wrought by hacking our relatively fragile craniums.

If that’s not the definition of scary, then maybe I really am paranoid.

Motor Mouth brings you his latest installment on the future if autonomous vehicles, but you can also listen to David Booth and others for the bigger picture on AUTONOMY: The Unexpected Implications of Self-Driving Vehicles on CBC Radio September 12th at 9 pm, or available for download or streaming from the CBC Ideas website starting that day. 


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