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Wednesday, December 28, 2016


What's a few mangled pedestrians?

by Tom Sullivan

Photo by Dllu, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons..

David Dayen reminded us yesterday that while predicting how autonomous machines will act is still a crapshoot, predicting how another human invention, corporations, will behave is not. Over the holidays, Uber was playing in traffic with its autonomous test vehicles (with human co-pilots). Dayen writes, "The cars were almost immediately caught running red lights and stop signs and barely missing pedestrians..." After the California DMV and state Attorney General Kamala Harris demanded the tests stop, Uber refused, citing “an important issue of principle”.

The Guardian reported two weeks ago:

Uber’s open defiance of California regulators marks the latest case of a “sharing economy” corporation ignoring government under the guise of “disruption” and “innovation”. Uber has long claimed that it is a technology “platform” and not a transportation company and thus does not have to classify its drivers as employees or follow traditional taxicab regulations.

That strategy has resulted in more than 70 lawsuits in federal courts and hefty settlements, along with claims from opponents that the company is abusing workers’ rights and failing to ensure the safety of riders.
As a cyclist before the Tour de France reached into American living rooms, I got used to having drivers in passing cars scream, throw objects, and run me off the road for impeding their God-given right to proceed with all the fleetness their steel steeds could muster. Uber's not being so rude. Uber believes it has a right to be an asshole because profit.

Dayen continues:
Days later, Uber acknowledged that the vehicles have a problem with unsafe turns across bike lanes, something they knew in pre-launch tests before placing the cars on roadways with lots of bikes, like in San Francisco. It must have been an important principle or something. Eventually, Uber bugged out of San Francisco after the DMV revoked registration on all its vehicles. But don’t weep for Uber: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey welcomed them into the state for a pilot project in Phoenix.
Sure, humans kill 35,000 people a year with their cars, but if we want a reliable autonomous system, the argument goes, only real-world testing will suffice. What's a few mangled pedestrians in pursuit of an all-American dollar? That, plus a multi-trillion-dollar public investment in "the largest infrastructure project in the history of mankind" to upgrade the Eisenhower interstate highway system to make it robot-ready. That might require dedicated lanes or else upgrades to the roadways with enough buried cabling to reach the moon and back.

Dayen asks whether simply investing in "stronger mapping or sensory technology" might be a wiser investment. He concludes:
I think normal people would call what we have here a grift. The car companies want to commandeer public infrastructure as a massive subsidy for their business model. And in the zero-sum world of government spending, such a scheme necessarily crowds out transportation that everyone can afford to use. We’re already seeing cities cut mass transit spending in favor of giving people coupons for Uber or Lyft. Considering that these companies aren’t making money and will eventually have to cash in on their oligopoly with higher rates, this kind of trade-off will eventually price poorer Americans out of getting where they need to go.
That's a small price for the public to pay, right? Technological advancements are deemed inevitable, and something everyone in business gets all moist over. Only a Luddite would oppose progress. But for the people running corporations that profit from them and find ways to make the public pay for it, there's one decrepit legal technology that, strangely, they have no interest in upgrading: the corporation itself. Like any other technology, it behaves just as it's designed to. That's just the way they like it.

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cheers --- digby