🔗 Autonomous Vehicles Aren't Autonomous


First published: .

Autonomous Vehicles are all the rage these days. They are going to save humanity! Cruise, Waymo, Tesla, Uber, and others have been trying to solve the problem of autonomous cars for over a decade, but lately it's been really taking off. And they're all doing it wrong. I'm not talking about the fact that most of them still require a human operator at least as a fallback, and I'm not talking about my belief that they are all dangerous and won't really work unless road infrastructure changes to properly accommodate them.

What I am talking about is the fact that they are not, and will never be, autonomous. Let's open the dictionary for a second:

autonomous, adj.

  1. (of political bodies) not controlled by outside forces; "an autonomous judiciary"; "a sovereign state" [syn: {autonomous}, {independent}, {self-governing}, {sovereign}]
  2. existing as an independent entity; "the partitioning of India created two separate and autonomous jute economies"
  3. (of persons) free from external control and constraint in e.g. action and judgment [syn: {autonomous}, {self-directed}, {self-reliant}]

From WordNet (r) 3.0 (2006)

No autonomous car in development fits these definitions, and none probably ever will. Autonomous vehicles are anything but; they depend on network connectivity, authentication servers, GPS servers/satellites, NTP servers, badly written JavaScript APIs, and God knows what more. Be sure that without a working GPS connection, your future, fully autonomous vehicle will absolutely refuse to move. And they can be remotely controlled by God knows who at any point in time. And it all works. Unless, of course, some link in the chain misbehaves, in which case the cars all turn to bricks, block roads, and cease responding to remote commands.

And using them requires a working smartphone with a privacy-destroying app. Is your phone battery dead? Are you old and/or not technically inclined? Are you privacy concious? Looks like you'll be walking home, you backwoods weirdo terrorist.

And you can be damn sure that all of these so-called autonomous cars under development sell every data point about you to the highest bidder, no questions asked, and put you at the mercy of companies run by techno kings with no customer service, who would disable your car remotely for God knows what reason at the push of a button, with absolutely no recourse. The "autonomous" in "autonomous vehicles" probably refers to the owner's relinquishment of autonomy.

Some people are starting to talk about having all cars replaced with autonomous ones, which will all sync with one another, and turn traffic into a well coordinated, beautifully choreographed dance. This is, of course, a pipe dream. Software isn't easy, and in fact, most of it out there is truly badly written. Also, it takes one pedestrian jumping into the road for the whole house of cards to collapse.

My opposition to all these "progressive technologies," be it autonomous vehicles, electric cars, scooters, ride-sharing, social networks, et cetra, isn't because I don't see their merits or because I'm a caveman, but rather it is because they take away my autonomy, do not provide what they advertise, have more moving parts than "traditional technologies" (figuratively and/or literally), are easily broken, have tightly-coupled dependencies and strict restrictions, and come with an extra serving of side-effects that really shouldn't be there, such as taking away your privacy and not actually transferring ownership. Do progressive technologies really have to come with so many regressions?

For autonomous vehicles to be autonomous, in my opinion, the problem must be attacked from a different angle. It will have to be extensively standardized, carefully regulated, and require the cooperation of many countries, jurisdictions, companies and other factors. It will require infrastructure work on a massive scale, and it absolutely cannot depend on proprietary technology. And it will take decades.