Friday, November 14, 2014

Curb Your Enthusiasm

I know should really leave aside the topic of self-driving cars for now, but I just want to make a final point about the expectations of technology.

Much of the problem with current writing about technology is inflated expectations about what technology can accomplish. I was reminded of that by reading this bizarre article from ForbesThe Massive Economic Benefits Of Self-Driving Cars. Note that they are already busy treating the benefits of this as yet unproven and experimental technology as if it were a fait accompli and money in the bank.

Why I consider this article bizarre is that its central arguments – 1.) the large toll on our economy taken by traffic accidents, and 2.) the amount of productive time wasted in traffic, are both the most commonly cited against driving cars in the first place! But now they are employed in defense of driving. WTF?

If you’re concerned about these, clearly you would favor public transportation – high speed rail for example, that would solve both of these. Where are the editorials in Forbes for high-speed rails, subways, metros, trams, etc.?  These arguments are waved away when proponents of public transportation bring them up, and then conveniently trotted out and deployed when supporting self-driving cars.

It’s shifting rationalizations in action! Too bad most readers of Forbes are only concerned with justifying their ideology rather than intelligent discussion. That’s all too common in media nowadays, probably a major reason we can’t solve any of our worsening-by-the-day problems – we just read to confirm our biases. Forbes, of course, being a propaganda organ of and for the rich and powerful, is totally committed to the Neoliberal economics doctrine. Thus, if a private company makes money it’s good, but if there is not private profit, even if there is tremendous utility to the public at large, then it’s bad.

One thing not discussed at all in this defense is the waste of having thousands upon thousands of single user-cars to carry a single passenger (as most of them do) as opposed to trains, streetcars, trams, buses, etc.). This argument is conveniently omitted. If this writer is so concerned about saving billions, what about billions of gallons in gas that Americans have to pay for, not to mention the cost of wars all over the Middle East? The silence is deafening. Don’t those cost money too? And what about all the pollution caused by cars leading to higher health-care expenditures (e.g. asthma rates).

In my state, the governor actually cost the state money by cancelling a light rail project, the same type of rail that’s existed for decades in most other industrialized nations of the world (and which China built in a decade) Where were the arguments about wasted time and saving lives then? Where were the denunciations of his actions in the pages of Forbes? I must have missed them.

The previous article by this writer dismisses the problems raised by the Slate article I cited – Why Self-Driving Cars may never happen. I’m not convinced by his dismissals. To me, it seems a classic overoptimism bias – explain away the flaws in the technology by assuming very unlikely things will happen. In the interests of fairness, let’s summarize his arguments:
“This [the article’s arguments that the cars need to have every road in America mapped  to work] assumes that the information will continue to be pulled by the car companies rather than being pushed by the government. If this technology can demonstrate that it works and saves lives, you can imagine detailed up-to-date mapping of the roads being a task the government takes.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, there! A task the government takes? Really? The same government that for the last forty years we have been told is nothing but an anchor weighing down the “efficient” private sector. The same government that steals money from the rich and gives it to the shiftless, lazy poor working three minimum wage jobs? The same government that is forever too bloated and inefficient? The same government that does nothing but impose unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and burdensome taxes on the job creators? The same government that the Republicans perennially claim need to be cut and pared back and drowned in a bathtub? The  same government that the Tea Party wants to “make squeal” like a gelded pig?

Um, that government?

So the government that taxes the rich and unearned income at minimal rates (which are perennially being reduced even further) is now going to foot the bill for a private company to have a monopoly on all cars in the United States. Please tell, me, O Libertarians, how that fits into your anti-government ideology. It seems that government has to ride to the rescue an awful lot to make the free market products dreamed up by the John Galts of the world function. Heck, all the billions made by the internet billionaires were only made possible by the government’s own invention of the internet. Our tax dollars subsidize their billions, and in return we get replaced by machines and workers in Bangalore. You’re welcome.
"Again, you don’t put up a traffic signal without government approval, so having the government make a widely available digital record of this before the change hits the real world doesn’t seem so drastic or unimaginable. Gomes argues signs and signals are change far too quickly, and quotes an electronic road sign company that says their portable construction signs are often “simply towed to a site and turned on”. Is it really so difficult to imagine these sign companies being required to upload the GPS coordinates of these signs to a government database before they turn them on?"
Yes, Mr, Ozimek, it really is so difficult to imagine this. Especially since the government can barely maintain the roads we have now, thanks to inadequate gasoline taxes. Everything is being crappified and crumbling around us left and right, as people who are not professional shills for the rich are noticing. The government can’t even keep track of health care records (but can spy on us all apparently). Have you ever worked on a road construction project or for a state government?
"The author also complains that self-driving cars can’t operate in the snow. This is a humorously ironic complaint since the inability to drive in the snow was one of the reasons why automobile skeptics claimed that they would never replace horses...When you consider the scale of the change that society needed to make the move from horses to automobiles it really makes the changes self-driving cars require seem quite minor in comparison."
None of this dismisses the actual argument - can self-driving cars work in ice and snow or not? the fact that this was an argument against cars in 1900 is a red herring.

Note also the massive infrastructure to make cars work was paid for in an age of cheap oil and economic expansion. The growth rate in America was probably 10+ percent a year. Now we're lucky if we get 2. And how expensive was gas in 1900?

It should also be noted that cars and driving only became ubiquitous after world War 2 when we redesigned the built environment around the automobile and made it a requirement for everyone to have one just to get around.
"Automobiles weren’t the only technology that required big changes in infrastructure to really replace existing technologies. Compare the work that needed to be done for electricity and telephones to replace the oil lights and telegrams. In comparison self-driving cars mostly need roads, signs, and other cars to simply communicate with them better. Not that big of an ask when you consider the tens of thousands of lives that will saved."
Those investments also increased the productivity in the economy, something redoing all the roadways in America for self-driving cars will not. Again, his arguments for self-driving cars make a better case for building a high-speed rail network in America, which could be done much cheaper than replacing or upgrading all of our highway infrastructure. Why isn't the author for that? They could also be accomplished by redesigning our built environment to not need a car to get everywhere. How about that? Won’t that save even more lives for even less money? Hmm?
"All these mapping concerns make a huge assumption about the world, which is that roads and signals will remain designed to be seen by humans. Instead, roadways and signage could be required to emit some kind of signal that self-driving cars can easily detect, some kind of digital lighthouse… Or something like that. I’m not an engineer, so I won’t get bogged down in the details of this..."
Yeah, forget those pesky details, they just bog you down! Go get an EE or CS degree and we shall chat (sorry, couldn't resist). Who is going to pay for these hypothetical lights? Google? And what about those of us without the cars? Why are we going to pay taxes to subsidize people who do buy them? Do we get a free car?

Will the billions of dollars saved by the economy offset the billions of dollars that will need to be spent to make the technology work? Mr. Ozimek may not be an engineer, but it seems like he’s not much of an economist either. But then again, in America you apparently don’t need to be good at anything to get a job telling the rich what they want to hear. In Wisconsin, you don’t even need a college degree.


Self-driving cars and 3-D printing (and biotechnology and new battery technology and…) to me are prime examples of our overinflated expectations of technology, and therein lies the problem. Yes, these two things do exist, and they do some neat things. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and appreciating that fact. But notice how we go from that to saving billions in the economy and creating a “third industrial revolution” Why are we so easily given to hyperbole over these inventions? I think it’s because we need them to “save” us, that’ why. Or rather, we need to encourage the perception that they will save us.

The reality is, self-driving cars seems to have limited applications. For most applications it would make more sense to build some sort of public transportation. For applications where public transportation is unfeasible, and where there is the appropriate infrastructure, these may be good options. But that’s a long way from saving the economy billions of dollars (and what about the lost jobs?).

Personally, I think the best use of Google’s inventions would be to put sensors in existing cars to cover your blind spots. That way, if there is a collision coming that you can’t see, the car could warn you or shut itself down. The car could partially self-drive in well-mapped areas. I can tell you from driving in LA traffic, I wouldn't have minded that. Useful stuff, but hardly as revolutionary as the steam engine or artificial lighting.

Similarly, 3D printing has lots of useful applications. Medical objects, which are bespoke (since every person’s body is slightly different) is an obvious application. Similarly, in building construction, there are always unique conditions, and there are often objects that are uneconomical to mass produce but are better made a as one-off.

But whenever you hear about these inventions, you hear less about the simple, practical uses of these inventions, and more about how these are harbinger of a new economy, one which will bring back economic growth and prosperity for all! Or about how they will change human society and bring about some sort of magical utopia.

The fact is, these are simply yet another of humanity’s long line of inventions that will allow us to do a few things more efficiently and be useful to a limited set of goals. But that sort of realism won’t inflate stock market bubbles and won’t mollify the masses who are seeing their wages shrink and jobs disappear with every passing year. So we get the hype instead.

So I guess my message might less “this technology won’t work,” and more “curb your enthusiasm.”


  1. Externalized costs (costs borne or rather suffered by the public or the government, such as paying for highway maintenance) are not important considerations to the sociopathic business model. The "billions in gas that Americans have to pay for" is not something that troubles big business, because someone external to the bottom line is footing the bill.

    There's no money in public transit, so putting in light rail, which makes more sense than self-driving cars, is wrong-headed and not a subject for discussion. "In my state, the governor actually cost the state money by cancelling a light rail project..." but made a lot of money for private businesses that probably helped fund his election. Public tax revenues were transferred to private interests, so it was a Good Decision. Putting in light rail = Bad Decision.

    Mapping and keeping current info on all of the roads, alleys, sidewalks, road construction, potholes, speedbumps, fallen trees and branches, cars that break down, pedestrians, jaywalkers, bicyclers, pets and wild animals, service vehicles, etc., and keeping it up-to-the-millisecond somehow even in the utter dark, is an externality for the public (the government) to deal with, like toxic runoff or trash covering the oceans.

    Anyone who has spent time around corporate marketers gets used to the cherry-picked, inflated pitch that leaves the pesky risks for someone else to deal with. Claims that some new technology will revive the moribund economy, make the middle class upper, give us vacation villas on Mars, and do it all in a day, are just more of the same old snake oil peddled for thousands of years.

  2. Seems like the propagandists have to shill harder these days. Good. Nice catch for all those fallacies.

    As for yelling at libertarians, well, not all of us are hypocritical "privatize everything" types. We'd like to see a lot less centralized guvmint and a lot more commons.

  3. I don't read the yelling as being aimed at the libertarians but at the propagandists and shills, whose function is defined by business, not politics.

    I think rail mass transit was probably more automated 100 years ago than self-driving cars are today, with the "dead man's switch" and all...

    Even by the yardstick of automation, you gotta ask, how many person-hours of labor per person-mile of transportation? By that yardstick I'm pretty sure a human bus driver outperforms the pro-rated labor of whatever GIS-database-maintainers (public or private sector being irrelevant for this analysis) provide the artificial artificial intelligence for the "self driving" infrastructure.


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