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Driverless Cars Shouldn’t Be a Race


I grind my teeth when the metaphor of “a race” is utilized in discussions about self-driving vehicle technology.

Corporations developing computer-piloted automobile technology, including Tesla, the Chinese company Baidu, and Waymo, a sibling company of Google, are repeatedly described as being in a horse race to make self-driving vehicles ready for widespread use. Some U.S. policy organizations and elected officials discuss America’s must exhibit “leadership” by beating China at autonomous technology.

There are risks to moving too slowly with a technology that would make people’s lives higher, but we shouldn’t uncritically buy the narrative that a technology that may take a few years to develop — and will have each profound advantages and fatal pitfalls — ought to be treated as a race.

The danger is that a man-made sense of urgency or a zeal to “win” could create unnecessary safety risks, give corporations permission to hog more of our personal information and prioritize corporations’ self-interest on the expense of the general public good.

Once you read that an organization or country is speeding, rushing, racing or winning in an emerging area of technology, it’s useful to stop and ask: Why is it a race in any respect? What are the potential consequences of this sense of urgency? Whom is that this message for?

Most self-driving vehicle technologists now think it could take many years until computer-piloted cars are commonplace. One other month, 12 months or two years may not make much difference, and it’s not clear that each one races are price winning.

So why does this narrative about self-driving cars exist? First, corporations find it useful to be perceived by their employees, investors, business partners, regulators and the general public as having one of the best shot at making secure, useful and lucrative computer-piloted transportation technology. Everyone desires to back a winner.

Pioneers have a shot at dictating the direction of a latest technology and constructing a network of business allies and users.

But winning a “race” in technology isn’t all the time meaningful. Apple wasn’t the primary company to make a smartphone. Google didn’t develop the primary online search engine. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company didn’t produce the primary advanced computer chip. They’re technology superstars because they did it (arguably) best, not first.

Second, the “race” narrative looks like a cudgel to steer the general public or elected officials to maneuver faster with rules and regulations, justify loose ones or expose people to unnecessary risks to “win.”

The Wall Street Journal reported last week about concerns that the autonomous trucking company TuSimple was taking safety risks with people’s lives “in a rush to deliver driverless trucks to market.” The Journal reported that a truck fitted with TuSimple technology veered suddenly on an Arizona interstate last spring and careered right into a concrete barricade. TuSimple told The Journal that nobody was hurt and that safety was its top priority.

Apple’s autonomous test cars have smacked into curbs near the corporate’s Bay Area headquarters, and earlier this 12 months one nearly crashed right into a jogger who had the precise of way crossing the road, The Information reported last month.

Cars without drivers could eventually make our roads safer, but each of those incidents was a reminder of the threats that these corporations pose as they work out the kinks in self-driving vehicles. Developing a streaming video app doesn’t kill people.

“We’re letting these corporations set the foundations,” Cade Metz, a Latest York Times reporter who writes about autonomous vehicle technology, told me.

Cade suggested a redefinition of the race narrative. As a substitute of attempting to win at making driverless cars widespread, there could possibly be a race to steer this technology in the general public interest, he said.

Characterizing emerging technology as a “race” with China isn’t great, either. There are benefits if an American company is the primary to commercialize a latest technology, but it surely’s also dangerous to treat every little thing as a superpower competition.

In an interview last 12 months with Kara Swisher, who on the time hosted a Times Opinion podcast, the 23andMe chief executive Anne Wojcicki lamented that the U.S. was “behind” China in an “information war that’s happening with respect to understanding the human genome.” Then Swisher asked: “Is that this a war we wish to win?”

Good query. If China is collecting mass amounts of individuals’s DNA, does that mean the U.S. should do it, too?

Plus, putting this much deal with driverless cars also may crowd out alternative ideas for improving transportation.

Perhaps the race metaphor we’d like is from Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Slowly, steadily, sensibly, with a keen awareness of the advantages and downsides — that’s the approach to win the self-driving automobile race. (However it’s not a race.)

Tip of the Week

Samsung this week unveiled a latest set of foldable phones that mix elements of smartphones and tablets. Brian X. Chen, the buyer technology columnist for The Times, brings us his likes and (mostly) dislikes of foldable phones:

Foldable cellphones are mainly smartphones with a hinge to open and shut like a book to expand the screen size. Samsung has been refining this technology for years, but I remain generally skeptical about it.

These were my impressions of the professionals and cons of earlier models after testing them years ago (starting with the cons):


  • When folded up, foldable phones are thicker than a typical smartphone, which adds bulk in your pocket or hand.


For an analogous take: David Pierce, a author for The Verge, wrote that folding phones seem to be an amazing idea but are annoyingly compromised.

  • It’s the twilight of Silicon Valley boy bosses: My colleague Erin Griffith reported on why some founders of young technology corporations are quitting. Surprise: It’s not so fun to run an organization when investor money is harder to come back by, the economy is rocky, and cost-cutting is cooler than “vision.” (Bonus points for the sparkling unicorn illustration.)

  • Bad government technology is a symptom, not a cause, of dysfunction: The Washington Post has a pleasant and infuriating photo essay showing the I.R.S.’s antiquated technology and clunky bureaucracy for processing tax returns. The cafeteria is only a sea of paper. (A subscription could also be required.)

  • Hobby drones go to war: Drones utilized in combat zones are not any longer only large, expensive weapons. Ukraine’s military can be using hobbyist drones adapted in makeshift workshops to drop bombs and spot artillery targets, my colleague Andrew E. Kramer reported.

NO ONE can resist doggy Martha with the pleading eyes.

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