Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Future In The Rearview Mirror

I have to write quickly today because I have a lot of driving to do, which is also what I want to write about.  Now I like driving but more and more people feel the opposite way. How many hours a week do you spend behind the wheel of a car?

Commuter and travel trains have always tried to sell customers on the idea than they can be productive or just choose to rest and relax on the ride to work or vacation. If you're old enough you might remember the advertising tag line "Amtrak, leave the driving to us".

The great day of railroads have come and gone. By the 1960's most railroads had given up on passenger service because there was no money it.  In Europe they were able to maintain their rail lines because a smaller portion of their citizens own a car and part of the gasoline taxes go to directly subsidize to keeping the rail lines viable. As a past friend once joked about American railroads "if they could ever find a way of delivering a nuclear weapon by train, the railroads would suddenly be awash in money".     

Trains do have the big advantage in moving non perishable bulk freight.  And that's what the owners of the big rail lines wish to deal with, even if there was a sudden surge in passenger demand the federally organized Amtrak is pretty much prohibited from expanding their services.

Since the 1950's there has been the futuristic dream of the electronically controlled highway.  That on every interstate highway the driver would have the option of turning on his car's autopilot and the vehicle could operate safe and autonomously.  In the late 1960's there was a proposed program for the highways around Detroit that never got funded.

About 40 years later the Department of Defense revisit the idea. They wanted battle hardened military supply trucks and they discovered the most vulnerable part of the truck was the driver. Eliminate the driver and you can devote more armor to critical mechanical parts. The truck could be more streamline, weigh less and fewer soldiers would be at risk. Halliburton was doubly interested because they had to pay truck drivers up to and over six figures to supply US Army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The robot driver or autonomously controlled vehicle found a military purpose and therefore funding.

On the civilian side of things was Google with their robotic car. They secretly tested it for over 100,000 miles before announcing to the world  that it works. One of the dreams of middle class America was just in view. A form of transportation that can be as convenient as a car, relaxing as a train and cheaper than hiring a chauffeur.

Of course any step forward comes with the possibilities of unforeseen circumstances. Like all the fuel saving measures that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s to battle the high price of gasoline. Conservation worked, gasoline prices stabilized and then started to slip when inflation was considered. People felt free to drive more when they could get 25-30 per gallon instead  12-15.  And people did drive more, taking on longer commutes to work or skipping Main Street to shop at regional big box stores. The congestion on many American roads is partly due to the success of past conservation, as you can see there's plenty of gasoline for everyone right now.

So what does it mean for the average person if cars and trucks are robotically controlled?  It could be interesting in court if components fail or aren't properly maintained. I'm sure the manufacturer will do everything possible to minimize their legal liabilities.  What I would worry about is what to do with a million out of work truck drivers.

In the early 1980s the Federal Government continued to deregulate the trucking industry as an attempt to break the powerful Teamsters Union. Suddenly there was a flood of independent truck drivers, entrepreneurs and people willing to haul freight for less.  A brother to a former classmate of mine worked a route from New York to Miami and back. The only way to make a profit was to run the truck almost 24 hours a day. Him and another driver took shifts, one drove and the other was in the back sleeping. It was grueling work and some called it a sweatshop on wheels.

 With a robot behind the wheel so much of that messy human element can be eliminated. There is no need to worry about the safety and comfort of a driver once he is gone.  I have seen a set of plans for a robotic tractor trailer truck. It's smaller and lighter because there is no living quarters behind the cab. The shape of the tractor portion is much more aerodynamic. Today a tractor trailer truck can get 6 miles to a gallon of diesel with the robotic set up fuel economy can go up to 8 miles per gallon. That might not sound like a lot but on that New York to Miami route , three times a week; the owner of the truck will save at least $35,000 in fuel costs. The savings and economic advantages of a robotic truck are overwhelming.  Maybe today's truck drivers will be like the men who once worked the canals, gone and almost forgotten -except in a few old folk songs.

I have been very concern about the development in robots. Their growth in numbers and abilities is growing at an exponential rate. About ten years ago DARPA hosted a contest for a robotic vehicles to see if they could finish a 20 mile course out in the deserts of Southern California -the first time none of the contestants came close to finishing. Today there are already automated trucks working in the remote open pit mines of Northern Canada.

Soon that same technology will be ready for public roads -and it will have a great effect on the society at large. It's not the first time machines have replaced people but when this happens maybe everyone else might see how vulnerable they really are.

Maybe even a bigger question will come up when a  whole new class of robotic weapons arrive. The science fiction idea of robots killing people is only a step away. Then we are all vulnerable. When a robot kills a person, who is responsible? Is disconnecting a robot enough justice to satisfy a grieving family?  

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