A Happy Thought

There may actually be some positives to the impending arrival of self-driving cars.

Yeah, I know, that sounds odd coming from me, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

Consider the case for predictability. Many of the concerns I see about self-driving cars boil down to “How do I know what it’s going to do in Situation X?”

How do you know what any driver is going to do in Situation X? In truth, you mostly don’t. You guess, based on your experience, your familiarity with the law, and what you’ve seen of the driver’s behavior. Usually you haven’t seen much of the last. If they’re doing something blatant–speeding, weaving back and forth across the lanes, going the wrong way on a one-way street–you pay special attention to them. But for the majority of drivers, you’re guessing.

How many times have you seen someone sit at a green light because traffic is backed up from the next light, so there’s no place to go? Not very often, at least around here. The default assumption is that two or three cars will move into the intersection and still be sitting there when the light changes. Now the cars on the cross street are blocked. Presto! Instant traffic jam.

And yet, this morning I saw three different cars waiting at green lights for the traffic ahead of them to move. It was startling enough that I took special note.

My point is that over time, we’ll build up a category of experience specific to self-driving cars. We’ll assume they’ll wait at green lights instead of blocking intersections*. And we’ll make that assumption because we’ll see them do it every time. Not just on days when they’re not late for work, didn’t have a fight with a loved one, or feel like being passive-aggressive.

* Assuming they weren’t programmed by Bay Area drivers.

We’ll be able to make better predictions about what they’re going to do than we will about all those human drivers on the road.

That’s a good thing, but here’s an even better one.

Even a tiny number of self-driving cars on the road have the potential to break up traffic jams before they start.


Okay, I’ll admit I’m extrapolating wildly from a study I saw back in the days before journal papers went online. But I’m a science fiction writer; wild extrapolation is part of my job description.

The gist of the study was that one of the common reasons traffic jams develop is that a few drivers slow down. The drivers behind them overreact and slow further, then speed up to close the gap. Errors accumulate, and again, Presto! stop-and-go traffic.

I see this every day. There’s a curve on the freeway where most drivers slow down from 65 (or whatever faster-than-the-limit speed they were going) to 60. Outside of commute hours, it doesn’t matter. Everyone slows a bit, then resumes speed on the next straight patch. But at rush hour, that curve always turns into a parking lot.

But the study went further. The investigators found that if a small percentage* of the drivers maintain a constant speed–even if that speed is well below the limit–instead of braking and accelerating, the jam never develops.

* I want to say five percent, but I’m working with twenty-year-old memories, so that may be incorrect. I am sure it was a single digit number.

Self-driving cars, if properly programmed, aren’t going to slow down for a curve they can safely negotiate at the speed limit. More to the point, if they get proper information about traffic conditions ahead of them, they won’t get into the slower/faster/slower/faster cycle that causes jams. They’ll just slow to the maximum speed that won’t result in a collision.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to those of you outside the Bay Area and other commute-infested regions. But not sitting in stationary traffic on that one single stretch of freeway would trim my morning commute by ten minutes. And there are two other spots on my normal route where traffic behaves the same way.

Saving half an hour a day and however much gas the car burns idling in traffic sounds like a very good deal to me.


Waze and Means

Uh, Google, did you really think this through?

OK, I’ll back up a bit.

A couple of years ago, an Israeli company released a unique GPS app called Waze. Waze monitored its user’s devices to learn about traffic conditions and driving times, much like other GPS apps. What made Waze unique is that it didn’t just passively watch the device locations. It also actively engaged users, giving them simple ways to report speed traps, traffic jams, accidents, and even gas prices. See someone pulled over by the police? Tap a couple of icons and now everyone using Waze in your area knows that the cops are making traffic stops. Street fair in your neighborhood and traffic is blocked off? Report it as both a traffic blockage and a street festival so drivers can avoid it and party-goers can find it.

The crowd-sourced data model worked out well for Waze, and the app became arguably the most popular third-party GPS program on both iOS and Android. Inevitably, they were acquired. Google paid $966 million last June and, even as the US, UK, and Israeli governments were investigating whether the acquisition was anti-competitive, they started working on integrating Waze data into their own map products.

The app is still available on both iOS and Android; it hasn’t replaced the default map application in Android. Not yet, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t in Google’s long-term plans. What Google has done is interesting–and a little disturbing.

They’ve integrated Waze data into Google Now.

Think about that for a moment, because Google clearly didn’t.

Remember, Google Now is always on, always reporting what it believes to be relevant, important information. Alerts that it’s time to leave for an appointment that are based on the estimated driving time. Directions to the event. Scores of games your favorite team is playing. Useful, timely. OK, great. Except.

Look, I have mixed, but largely favorable, feelings about Google Now in general. But I’m firmly of the opinion that it should not include live traffic information. Whenever I leave the house, if I look at my phone, I find a popup message telling me how long it will take to drive home. Guys, I’m already enough of a hermit. Don’t encourage me to retreat to my cave if I’ve managed to find my way into town…

OK, that’s just mildly annoying. What’s outright dangerous is the live notifications. Case in point: I drove Maggie to BART this morning. On the way home, my phone started buzzing, telling me I had a new message. I finished the drive and then checked the message. Google Now was alerting me to a “traffic event” on the freeway. Remember, I was not using my phone for directions. It was locked and sitting in its holster. In order to check the message, I would have had to pull it out of the holster (a task that usually requires me to use 1.5 hands), hit the power button, swipe to unlock the screen, and then pull down the notification slider. Since I’m not particularly suicidal, I should probably pull over first.

Suppose I do all that. What would I find? “Traffic incident on I-80 W.” Great. Since it doesn’t say anything about which exit it was near, I have no idea if I had already passed it or was approaching it when the alert came in. Even better, I was on 80 East, so it wouldn’t have affected me. Yes, I know that an accident on one side of the freeway usually slows down traffic on the other side as people gawk at the carnage. But it’s rare for the slowdown to be extensive enough to warrant distracting a driver.

So, Google, please give the whole idea a few seconds of thought. If I’m using Maps for directions, by all means pop up a warning of an “incident” in my vicinity. Hell, if I’m using the phone, I could make an argument for a notification. I’m not going to complain too much if my cat videos are interrupted to warn me about an accident that’s going to make me late for dinner. (Yes, I’m assuming that I’m a passenger here. I don’t usually watch cat videos while driving.) But if the phone is locked, that means I’m most likely not in a position to see what the message is. Triggering an audible alert is at best annoying, and might actually be dangerous. Remember, folks: if I have a serious accident because you distracted me at a critical moment, I’m not likely to buy another Android phone…