Driverless Cars: Tomorrow’s Promise?

google guys in carWhile we await Governor Brown’s third veto of California’s safe-passing law AB 1371, we want to revisit an earlier piece of transportation-related legislation to which the good Governor did give his nod: SB 1298, the Google-friendly legislation that gave the green light (so to speak) to ‘driverless car’ operation in California. It was supported overwhelmingly in Sacramento (37-0 in the Senate and 74-2 in the Assembly) and was signed almost exactly one year ago by the Governor. What could it mean for cyclists?

Signed one year ago, SB 1298 ‘Autonomous Vehicles: Safety and Performance Requirements’ ostensibly regulates for safety this new innovation, but mainly it enables testing of driverless cars on public roads in the state. More importantly, the new law directs the California DVM to adopt regulations to govern the licensing and popular operation of driverless cars by January, 2015. This legislation was championed by Google – the primary proponent of ‘autonomous vehicles.’

Protecting cyclists from motorists is not so sexy, however. Advocacy organizations like the California Bicycle Coalition have labored to communicate our concerns to the Governor, but he’s vetoed safe-passing laws twice. And his silence this go-around is ominous. Why is it so difficult to codify a regulation that simply addresses one particularly negligent driver behavior? Perhaps because the California Highway Patrol and the Auto Club conspired to neuter it when they couldn’t kill it in the legislature?

With Governor Brown so reluctant to sign a simple safe-passing bill for the third time, we wondered Sacramento was in such a hurry to give its blessing to the driverless car – a quixotic, unproven technology with benefits a decade or more distant. One answer, not surprisingly, was that Google lobbied lawmakers for it. As far back as the 2009-10 session, it spread campaign largesse around and gave as much as $25,900 to Governor Brown (and his rival) during that election cycle, according to the Bay Citizen.

To be honest, we didn’t pay much attention when the Governor signed the bill in September of 2012. We were impressed by the technology (heck, even self-parking sounded exotic) but we were concerned about the ramifications. Isn’t dodging distracted or careless motorists enough? Do we need driverless cars too? If we are really better served by taking the motorist out of the driver’s seat entirely, then shouldn’t we focus our policy reforms to educate better drivers?

Now, we’re sympathetic to the argument that collision-avoidance mechanisms can save lives. We suppose the logical next step is to collision-proof the whole driving experience. But given policymaker haste, can the driverless car the panacea? After all, we’ll still have the same old roads uninformed by best practices we see around the world. We’ll still have problematic access to expensive health care, which leaves injured cyclists in the lurch after a collision. We’ll still have indifferent enforcement. And of course we’re stuck with the careless or negligent drivers that inspired the passage of AB 1371 in the first place.

For us the driverless car is no slam-dunk. If we can’t even get a safe-passing bill out of Sacramento, should we be satisfied with a few falling crumbs from the big loaf tossed Google’s way by the Governor? Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the bright side – at least as advanced by driverless car proponents and prophets.

The Safety Argument

World Health road injuries infographicThe Bloomberg Road Safety Report found that 1.3 million lose their lives to collision every year – a cause of death projected to step up to the fifth-leading cause globally by 2030 as more new drivers find a place behind the wheel. The Foundation also tallied more than 20 million collision injuries annually, with 90% of them occurring in places less-economically privileged than California, where poor access to medical care, substandard facilities, and inadequate safety regulations all conspire to push victims into the mortality column.

These are also places largely without the safety measures we mostly take for granted. Their roads are sometimes poorly engineered and maintained. And the foundation found that nearly 85% of the world’s countries lack the laws necessary adjudicate responsibility for the increasing rates of traffic-related deaths and injuries.

Bloomberg traffic injuries table

Road traffic injuries are expected to climb as the leading cause of death globally.

When a major foundation focuses on the public health implications of traffic, just like Malaria or Polio, say, it’s time to take the high cost of motoring seriously.

Enter the ‘autonomous vehicle’ law. The California law says ‘safety’ right in its title, and indeed the bill text mentions (briefly) “significant potential safety, mobility, and commercial benefits.” Yet the bill text silent on the nature of potential safety gains. In fact, reading the following passage, one has to wonder if the new technology adds anything at all to existing safety-enhancing innovations:

An autonomous vehicle does not include a vehicle that is equipped with one or more collision avoidance systems, including, but not limited to, electronic blind spot assistance, automated emergency braking systems, park assist, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, traffic jam and queuing assist, or other similar systems that enhance safety or provide driver assistance, but are not capable, collectively or singularly, of driving the vehicle without the active control or monitoring of a human operator. Section 1(2b)

So, do we need a car that drives itself? An insurance industry report provocatively-titled ‘A Scenario: The End of Auto Insurance’ suggests that the answer is yes. At least from the safety perspective. The ‘scenario’ predicts that new technologies including the driverless car will change the game. Namely, it will significantly reduce monetary losses from collisions so much that the proportion of the collected premium that covers property damages will drop to only one-quarter of what is collected by insurers from policyholders today.

Those new technologies include today’s collision avoidance features but add into the mix greater deployment of automated traffic enforcement, more pervasive use of telematics (e.g., collection of driver data) and, of course, the projected popular embrace of the driverless car.

The report envisions reduced overall auto insurance costs, but of course that means a changed insurance industry model: fewer collisions mean smaller losses and lower premiums and, presumably, smaller margins. In response to the prospect of the driverless car, proposals have emerged to socialize auto insurance costs.

But the report’s most salient prediction is the proliferation of policy-driven incentives to smooth sales of driverless cars. This handy timeline suggests that deployment may lag other policy initiatives, but that eventually Google’s pie-in-the-sky technology will find a ‘preferred’ place in consumer garages by 2023:

Driverless adoption timeline via Insurance

The Value of Data

google autonomous vehicleWhat if some cloud-computing entity outfitted a growing fleet of roving traffic data collection devices to aggregate a picture of driver behavior much like we aggregate data on speed and location to create a simple coarse-grained traffic map? But much, much more fine-grained and detailed of course.

As detailed in Google’s patent application (#20120083960) titled, ‘System And Method For Predicting Behaviors Of Detected Objects,’ a mountain of real-time road behavior data will be gathered by an ever-expanding fleet of driverless cars as part of its autonomous vehicle program.

driverless car infographic

Via the Economist

Moreover, Google wants to collect and analyze data by type of road-user. The idea is to refine an understanding about how certain road users behave and then predict how they might behave. The patent uses the example of trucks versus bicycles to highlight the differences and suggest how possible movements might need to be anticipated differently.

The broader idea is to learn from experiences on the road and then turn around and improve the autonomous vehicles’ response under known conditions but also react to unknown, albeit anticipated, events. The driverless cars will feed Google data for its algorithms and (theoretically) work toward fewer collisions & more efficient operation. The program would scale, too, as more cars that hit the road. We will know about real-world driving behavior. (A post on Google’s autonomous vehicle patents is forthcoming.)

Big data from the road also suggests that we might learn more about those drivers who  do remain behind the wheel. Today, concrete observations about road user behavior is  catch-as-catch can; our data are selective and always retrospective (for example court records). Plus, real-time driver data generated by automated enforcement tools remains siloed within jurisdictions. But those aren’t the only dots we’re not connecting today.

Couldn’t we also learn more about the extent to which particular road characteristics contribute to collisions? Like speeding, say? Today, if we have an hypothesis we could conduct a traffic study to test it. We’ve been making educated guesses about what kind of facilities don’t serve us well and incrementally introducing changes, but at a glacial pace. But that’s a far cry from real-time, crowd-sourced data. No wonder we can’t bend the death and injuries curves! Indeed there’s been no clear inflection point. Four decades after the bicycle renaissance in the 1970s, we’re still sifting through study findings to learn the net effect of bicycle lanes and road diets.

Looking ahead a decade, will driverless vehicles and their cluster of sensors provide something closer to real-time data and perhaps even feed back a change in prevailing speeds after a road diet, say? That kind of controlled test is long familiar to lab scientists and can be made available to departments of transportation too with the right data and analysis.  And that suggests both a new kind of toolbox and a new kind of traffic engineer.

The Environmental Promise

The environmental benefit claims on behalf of driverless cars is party premised on the safety argument: by reducing the incidence and severity of collisions, our cars can be made smaller and lighter and occupy a smaller environmental footprint. Some say that in wide use they could eventually reduce fuel consumption by a factor of ten.

Environmental claims are also premised on the efficiency argument: rationally-managed motoring will save time and fuel because our vehicles will know where to park and how to cue on the roadway. That reduces wind drag and increases capacity. And, taken to it’s extreme, such convoyed vehicles in ‘road trains’ could help to solve the oil crisis.

Environmentalists say that a tiny proportion (about 1%) of the fuel we burn for personal transportation actually transports the person. The rest moves mass and air or is lost in light and heat. With so much room for improvement, the of game-changing motoring innovations is vast. “Still, there is a very real possibility that within the next decade self-driving vehicles will begin to flip a century-old car regime on its head,” prophesizes the Yale environment blog.

“The rise of driverless cars would also affect the planning and layout of cities,” according to The Economist.

Assuming that autonomous vehicles make journeys quicker and use road space more efficiently, how should planners exploit the benefits of automation? On the one hand it would allow cities to get bigger, by reducing the time and stress associated with commuting. On the other, it could allow cities to become denser, by reducing the amount of space that needs to be dedicated to roads and parking. Alternatively, space allocated to roads in city centres could be used for bike lanes or parks.

The Driverless Car is No Substitute for a Safety Law

Renewed and reshaped cities perhaps, but the driverless car can expect some bumps in the road. Only two states in addition to California (Florida and Nevada) have enacted enabling legislation and the federal statutes don’t yet reflect the adjustments we would have to make to regulate these new unmanned urban terrestrial vehicles. The law is woefully unprepared, according to the Center for Internet and Society, as accords (like the 1949 Convention on Road Traffic have not kept pace globally.

Ethicists also question the wisdom of allowing the ‘Internet of things’ to handle the heavy machinery in crowded urban centers. Dystopians point to the future ‘hacked’ driverless car and raise the inevitability of robot cars going berserk on our roadways, for example. Even The Economist editorializes a call for “laws of robotics” to temper the growth of autonomous technologies like the driverless car.

Clearly we’re at the beginning of the story. We’re seeing boosters, hardware makers, and political patrons align. And of course the tools are rapidly evolving. Indeed if we listen to the driverless car boosters we might well think it safer to simply take the driver out of the driver’s seat! These devices may well deliver on the promise. But that’s tomorrow’s promise; cyclists still wait on the Governor’s signature to deliver at least one incremental step toward safer streets today: the right to be passed safely by a driver in a vehicle.

Resisting the Panopticon: Our Policies Change

Google's new networkIn yesterday’s post about Google’s announced service changes, titled A Panopticon Matures, we pointed out that starting March 1st the search giant will consolidate information about online activities across all proprietary platforms and fold it into real-name Google profiles. Known as ‘One policy, one Google experience,’ the new service changes are intended to create a social search experience that “does what you need, when you want it to.” Given those changes, we’re making some under-the-hood changes in how we interact with users. Hint: We’re not doing evil.Google logoGoogle’s service changes are extensive and have already generated considerable consternation from privacy advocates, industry observers, and tech media alike. Yesterday the search giant aggregated information to guess about ad placement; but tomorrow it will learn much more about you – the things that you like and the people who you know. As the ACLU says, “Google is following you.”

What’s next? Will Google bring its algorithms to bear on that more complex problem –  anticipating what you will think before you think it? We not only think so, Google says so:

“A more consistent user experience across Google might mean that we give you more accurate spelling suggestions because you’ve typed them before. Or maybe we can tell you that you’ll be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and the local traffic conditions.”

With so many ‘signals’ from across so many users from so many platforms, the quantitative-driven Google believes it can make more than an educated guess about what you’ll need. We believe they can.

Consequently, Better Bike has decided that it’s better not to collect any information at all from our site visitors that might feed into Google’s data banks. Our changes are minor and under-the-hood, and you’ll need no disclosure or disclaimer or terms of service to understand them. We’re simply moving away from visitor tracking and pulling our work from proprietary platforms and keeping it in-house, as it were, on our own server, so that our visitor information and browsing patterns (on Better Bike and beyond) stay in our hands.

No More Tracking

First, in the wake of Google’s new policy we have discontinued use of Google Analytics, stripping our site of that visitor-tracking javascript (and all Facebook meta tags too). Better Bike has always been ad-free. We’ve never enrolled in any Adsense-type scheme or deployed any other ad tracker. (Today it is common to land on a site with fifteen of them.)

We’ve also discontinued our use of Google’s Feedburner RSS service because it tracked users (you can still subscribe through our site for RSS push notifications of new posts). We’ve also closed our Facebook page. (We didn’t see the value in it anyway, but your mileage may vary.) We do value our readers, though, so we’ve made it simple subscribe to our new weekly email news digest.

No More Third-Party Emails

Second, we’ve moved all of our emailing to our own server. Rather than work through third-party contact platforms like MailChimp or Constant Contact, now we send plain-text emails. We never liked HTML-format emails because they’re a vector for malware and they take too much time to compose…time better spent on creating a post. As an added bonus, now your email address is not in a company DB waiting to be sold or parted out at bankruptcy or otherwise compromised.

But the real benefit of sending email directly is that it avoids Mailchimp’s click-though tracking links. Routing click-through via a service was a already a concern. The Mailchimp privacy policy runs to 2,600 words, and we believe that you shouldn’t have to tacitly consent to turn over your information to them for Mailchimp purposes merely we’ve sent you an email.

But that was before we learned that Mailchimp inserts tracking links even in plain text emails, which in theory should include only visible simple links. Indeed the preview window in Mailchimp doesn’t show tracking links to the sender, though recipients receive plain text emails with them included. Not only do such links obscure the destination page link, they add clutter. So first we let HTML-format emails go, now we’re letting the service go too. From now on our emails are sent direct with no tracking links. They’re more reliable to open and are easier to share, we think.

New Weekly Email Digest Format

We will be sending out a weekly digest of recent Better Bike posts to keep you informed. Weekly email updates, we’ve noticed, is a practice of many of the advocacy groups that we follow, so why not run with that good idea?

Readers who had previously indicated an interest in receiving emails have been folded in to the new weekly notifications. For new visitors, sign-up is now easier and requires only an email – no names necessary. If it’s too much, simply unsubscribe and follow us via RSS in your favorite feed reader.

We hope that our weekly digest, along with the subscription options and recent usability improvements that we’ve made to the front end of the site, will make browsing Better Bike low-friction and more rewarding. We’re always open to your ideas about the site and especially any news you can share about your experiences riding in Beverly Hills.

On Google’s Terms, A Panopticon Matures

Google's new networkGoogle recently announced a change in how it collects information from search and online activity conducted through Google platforms and proprietary services like Youtube. While Google long collected IP addresses as a proxy for location, and also used cookies to identify return visitors, the search giant is going a big step further now: it will begin to marshal data from users’ activity data from across all of its services and then will attach it to a user account. All the better to know you and serve you ads. And so much more!

Google logoThese changes have put online privacy on the front burner here at Better Bike. It’s not just site cookies and Gmail ads that raise a red flag; what has us alarmed is the coordination of the many tools at Google’s disposal – from cookies to tracking pixels, link trackers to hardware identifiers – to know us as best it can. All the better to generate new revenue streams, presumably. But that’s the least of our concerns.

And it’s not about the dissemination of data per se. Google says that it won’t sell personal information or share it without permission. We believe them. Why would they want to? Our data is more valuable within the Googleplex than outside. It’s what they want to do with all of it: to mix it and match it and generate personally-identifiable profiles. They simply want to know us better.

Now, some folks may remain sanguine. “Knowing me better means that I’ll see ads that I care about.” And yes, that’s long been the genius behind Google’s search. But Google is going farther now; it wants to remind us of that meeting that somebody mentioned in an email message. Or to show me ads for a new listing service if I’ve corresponded with a divorce attorney. Or simply to return search results based on what my Google+ circle says about politics or whatever. Even if none of them have made that conversation public. Merely using Google services after March 1st is their consent to share it.

Google policy change textNo matter what you call this – Orwell’s Big Brother or DARPA’s Total Information Awareness or Google’s ‘relevant search’ – when you throw into Google’s AI algorithms all of your data, contacts, and online activities, you extend it’s reach into every sphere of your life, and that reach is already vast. It includes YouTube, Blogger, Buzz, Books, Google+, Groups, Mobile/Android, Gmail, Apps suite & Picasa – not to mention Voice and Checkout, two services that neatly bring your offline activities right into your online profile today.

Cause for alarm? We think so. It’s reason enough at least to carefully scrutinize Google’s new policies, terms, and privacy disclosure to know how they will impact you. In all likelihood you’ won’t take a hard look. Did you read the terms & conditions for your bank or wireless contract (<4,000 words), for Twitter (3,000) or Google’s Picasa (2,500), or iTunes (16,000 words/40 pages on an iPad)? The Superior Court of California’s terms run only 800 words! Helpfully Google posted a brief FAQ but don’t let your imagination stop there.

Ask yourself if you understood when putting your data out there in public that it could find a place in a law enforcement database? FBI and NYPD and like-minded organizations access phone location data without subpoena and scrape social networks sites to learn about who we know and what we do. Some point to a growing coziness between the US Government and the search giant – fears about which were heightened when Google street view camera cars captured in volume hardware addresses and  wireless payload data a few years ago. EPIC seeks information about a case where the government leans on social networks to turn over data outside of a company’s terms & conditions.

Some user imagination is what’s required here because terms & conditions generally tell you what kind of data is collected but they don’t imagine for you how it will be used. Imagination is not evenly distributed, of course; Google and Facebook and the like have cornered the market.

Not surprisingly, Google’s new approach has generated considerable interest among privacy advocates like the ACLU and tech observers like Ars not least because online activity tracking and social graphs muddy the distinction between what we choose to share and that which we share unknowingly. An Atlantic Magazine columnist suggests we reexamine the social graph of our relationships with companies like Google and ask, “At what point does Google know more about me than I’m comfortable with?” I would add that we don’t even know what Google knows about us.

I’ll give Google credit for the new disclosures; they’re easy to understand. But they won’t answer that last question. Know that once you sign on, you’ve contractually released Google from upholding the data confidentiality and privacy policies that we accepted only a short time ago. But now that they’ve disclosed, you get to decide. As Google itself says in its introduction to the changes, “This stuff matters.” Despite the casual language, they’re not joking.