Tim: Hi. We are talking today with Peter Wayner, who is an accomplished author, and he has been a longtime Slashdot book reviewer as well. By the way, Peter has been thinking a lot about autonomous driverless cars, and he has a book upcoming on this. We will talk today a little bit about some of the issues about driverless cars – what they mean for everybody.
Peter Thanks Tim. There are a lot of issues that will be interesting to everybody on Slashdot because not only are there the typical issues that confront everyone like, is it nice to be able to go back from a bar late at night without having to worry about DWI but there are a lot of technical issues, issues about privacy, issues about designing computer systems; questions about how we are going to build the infrastructure, and in that sense what we are doing is we are taking a lot of the ideas from the internet and we are stretching them out in the meatspace, and all of a sudden we are going to have cars that will take us places in much the same way that websites take us places.
Tim: You mentioned privacy. Privacy I think with cell phones, I don’t want people eavesdropping on my conversation, now with cars, when I get my car right now, I don’t think of privacy as a central issue. So explain how privacy comes into it.
Peter Well, right now if someone wants to follow you, they have to follow you, and it is one of the classic parts of every cop drama and every kind of movie and there are always chase scenes of people trying to evade a tail, and lately the police have gotten these, they have built these nice GPS locating devices that track people without actually having humans on the tail, but those have come under a lot of legal surveillance itself where people have asked whether that this is really a legitimate thing, and what kind of warrant should be used. Now all of a sudden, we are going to add yet another layer on top on this, because these autonomous cars are going to be filled with computers and computers always collect data, and this data is going to be sitting around somewhere.
Tim: And it is comprehensive sort of data too.
Peter It is going to be comprehensive and it is going to be comprehensive for everybody, it is not going to just be the person who is inside the car, because the cars themselves have sensors all over the place, they’ve got jammers looking forwards, jammers looking backwards, they could easily keep track of everything that goes by. And when you saw what happened with the Boston marathon bombing and they were able to collect all these random snapshots that people were just taking of the marathon and piece together what’s going on, well can you imagine if every car in the city kept track of everything it saw, everywhere it goes. And if you work through the math, you realize that it is not that big a number, it won’t require that much disk space to record everything coming out of every car in New York City.
What’s going to be interesting and what’s going to be different is that a lot of people aren’t going to own their cars, and just as we have these kind of questions about privacy in the cloud right now, and privacy about who owns your email if it is stored with an email and a website, there are going to be questions of who owns the data when you take a cab ride that’s driven by an autonomous car. Is it going to be you? Or is it going to be the cab company? And the cab company could quite easily just disclose it in response to a subpoena. Or the cab company may do all kinds of crazy things with it. They may use it to sell you ads, they could do all the different things that the websites are doing today. So you go to a store, you go to a particular store, you go out late at night, the car will notice, and the car will know where you are going, and all of a sudden it won’t just be your web actions that drive the advertising coming to you, it is going to be all of your actions.
Tim: It is a lot more than a store loyalty card, they know what store you go to, but they know what store you go to, where you came from, where you bought the gas, or in future, where you plug in your car. So it is all that stuff. Now, you mentioned a cab you described it as a cab as if it is a car that you don’t own, it comes and picks up, is that what we see the model of driving in the future, it is really more like a cab company that urban drivers or urban residents are now much more used to?
Peter Well, I don’t really know what is going to happen. I don’t think anyone does. But the cab model is really economically interesting. Because if you think about the car that I own, or the car that you own, they are both sitting in the driveway rusting right now. And really the average car rusts for 23 maybe 23½ hours a day, and when you start to have an autonomous car, well, when you are not using the car, the autonomous car can be helping someone else. And then, if you kind of take that to the extreme, you think wow! It is just going to be much easier to have a cab and you dial up on your smart phone, the way you do at Uber right now, you dial up a ride and boom! The cab comes to you. When you work through these systems, you realize that there are all kinds of neat things you can do – for instance, you can have car pools, so the central reservation system can be sitting there, and says, well Bob wants to go downtown, and Chris wants to go downtown, and Pat wants to go downtown, and they are kind of right in the way, right along the same route, how about if I them send them a coupon, and it says if you guys all ride together, you get it for half price. And the autonomous computer, the central reservation computer can do all kinds of crazy things like that.
Tim: You know the city I live in, I live in Austin, and here we’ve got both Car 2 Go and Zipcar which have some things in common in that they are a shared ownership model, where you are buying a service but you don’t have to call someone because the cars themselves are distributed. I can see that happening too with driverless cars, is that they will be all around the city in a cluster, and when you want to go, the nearest one may activate itself and pop over.
Peter You are right. It could just kind of zip right over and I am sure, the Zipcar folks are thinking about it, and the Car 2 Go, those are already kind of amazing models and they are really useful. I use Zipcar all the time now, and I think that we are going to see even more just because the economics of owning a car are kind of prohibitive when you look at the fact that it can be so much cheaper if you just share it with your friends.
Tim: One thing, when it comes to certain decisions, when you buy a car now, there is a lot of individual decisions that go into it, because you buy a car for its style, for what consumer reports say or perceived safety advantages, if you are getting the car comes at the top of the list, when you order your robot car, I wonder if you feel funny about getting a safer or less safer when it comes to your driveway.
Peter Well, those decisions are going to be made by the central, if we move to some kind of shared system, those decisions are going to be made by whoever runs the buying process. So like right now, there is some guy in a back office of Zipcar who says ‘I like this car better’ for whatever reason, and so the car manufacturers are going to have to make those guys happy, and they are going to have to make the end user happy too but they won’t be the real deciders, and so if the central company can somehow keep enough of their regular customers happy enough then there is a lot of opportunity for making central decisions.
Tim: You know, I hope that it doesn’t boil down to two or three providers in a city, but I hope it is not like an ISP where you sometimes your decisions between worse and worser
Peter I think you are absolutely right. I think I‘ve been talking to a couple of my friends, a couple of other journalists I have been working with on this book, and I have been showing it to them, some of them are really optimistic and they think that this is going to be wonderful. But you know, one of them at least is incredibly pessimistic and he thinks he is going to have exactly the same problem that you are talking about there, where you just don’t have these choices with the ISP because there is going to be one best provider that is going to come in and roll everybody up, and then you won’t have choices anymore.