Review of Autonomy in Literary Review, October 2018

(The paywalled version of this review is here).

Will the Wheels Come Off?

Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – and How It Will Reshape Our World

By Lawrence D Burns with Christopher Shulgan


There is a video on the Tesla website that shows something magical: a car driving itself through a foggy Silicon Valley suburb. The man in the driving seat, we are told, is there only ‘for legal reasons’. He is a lumpen spectator as his car manoeuvres through junctions, around traffic cones and back to its home. Monitors show what the robot car is seeing as it makes its way along the road. The car detects and classifies objects, putting coloured boxes around things like other cars, cyclists and road signs. If these things are moving, the software predicts their next steps. Ten years ago, a self-driving car seemed impossible, but here it is, driving past pedestrians who are happily unaware of the magic on their streets.

Should we believe our eyes? Simulations such as the one in the Tesla video are, in the words of one roboticist, doomed to succeed. Alongside the hype, we have seen high-profile failures. In May 2016, Joshua Brown died instantly when neither he nor his Tesla, which was in autopilot mode, saw a truck that was crossing the road ahead of him. Two years later, Elaine Herzberg was killed by a self-driving Uber while walking her bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona. The achievements of Uber, Tesla and Waymo (Google’s self-driving company) are extraordinary. But are they good enough? Are we ready to hand over control of our cars, and possibly our futures, to Silicon Valley?

A video on the website of a car company is an unreliable guide to the future. So too, unfortunately, is this book. Lawrence D Burns, who tells his story here with the help of journalist Christopher Shulgan, is a car man, a Detroit insider who lived through the devastation wrought by the financial crisis on his company, General Motors. He knows that making cars is not easy: he talks convincingly about Detroit’s expertise in ‘hardening’ the bits of a car to cope with the myriad different conditions it must face. But this is not a book about hardware. Burns has been converted by Silicon Valley. He is now a true believer in software.

He has the certainty of a good evangelist: ‘we’re going to take 1.3 million fatalities a year and cut them by 90 percent. We’re going to eliminate oil dependence in transportation. We’re going to erase the challenges of parking in cities … People who haven’t been able to afford a car will be able to afford the sort of mobility only afforded to those with cars. And we’re going to slow climate change.’ The wellspring for these projected transformations is artificial intelligence.

The future he imagines has a long history. The book mentions the attempts at transport automation stretching back to the middle of the 20th century, when car companies grudgingly began to introduce safety technologies such as airbags and imaginative governments experimented with driverless trains and roads that would talk to cars.

But Burns and Shulgan aren’t interested in that history. Their story begins in 2004, when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged a competition to find a team of engineers who could build a robot car able to navigate the Mojave Desert. All of the entrants failed, but many of the competitors went on to lead the teams developing self-driving cars for Google and Uber, supported by massive resources (one think-tank reckons that $80 billion was invested in the industry in the years 2014–18). Subsequent competitions showed how quickly things were changing. Burns calls the third DARPA competition, which took place in 2007 in a model town, ‘the moment … when everything changed’. In 2004, during what one news report called ‘DARPA’s debacle in the desert’, vehicles were crashing, capsizing and catching fire. By 2007, upgraded software autonomously steered six vehicles past parked cars and moving traffic. By 2015, a team at Google had, in secret, racked up 101,000 miles of testing on Californian roads in order to meet a target set by their boss, Larry Page, and earn a hefty bonus. In doing so, and with the support of enthusiastic tech reporters, they set a precedent. The notion that testing technology in public is not just responsible but also vital is now being written into US law. It is depressing to note that, after Elaine Herzberg was killed and the governor of Arizona announced that Uber’s right to test self-driving vehicles would be suspended, the governor of Ohio immediately invited the company onto his state’s streets. As with traditional carmakers in the 20th century, companies are being encouraged into recklessness in the name of automotive freedom.

Burns’s critical insights into the car industry are valuable. He sees the absurdity of the state of the motoring industry in the USA, where there is more than one car per driving American, with each vehicle gigantically over-engineered, according to the ‘occasional use imperative’, and chronically underused. He quotes the writer Edward Humes: ‘in almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.’ And the revelations about the secret experiment that Google undertook in plain sight on California’s roads are important. Teaching a car to drive is far more complicated than teaching a computer to play chess, and the authors are good on the details. But the book is a cut and shut – a biography welded to a Google corporate prospectus, a business book that has had a scientific paint job.

This is a book about unbounded innovation that allows itself and its characters almost no imagination. The future that Burns sees is inevitable, and the individuals he describes are mere instruments in the process. We are expected to believe that their feet are on the accelerator but that they have no steering wheel. Perhaps this comes from technological determinism – the assumption that technology is an autonomous driver of social change. Or perhaps it is a reflection of quite how entrenched car culture is in the American West. Had the book been written by a native of London or New York, it would surely have come with some consideration of new possibilities for public transport. The video on the Tesla website is not the whole truth. Silicon Valley wants us to believe that autonomous cars will move effortlessly through traffic. But as in the 20th century, when the car was first introduced, making this technology ‘work’ will require vast changes to our roads, towns and lifestyles. Figuring all this out calls for more than just clever engineering.

About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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