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The dream of computer-driven cars taking over the roads remains a fantasy. But slowly, and maybe more modestly than tech idealists imagined, driverless vehicles are getting real.
After a period of funk that included a pandemic-related freeze on road tests, driverless car developments have been coming thick and fast in the last few weeks.
Waymo, which is part of the same company as Google, recently expanded its driverless taxi service in Phoenix — and without a person in the driver’s seat in case something goes wrong. General Motors’ driverless car company will also soon remove human minders from its self-driving test cars in San Francisco. Tesla has said it will soon turn on software features that shift many of its cars on the road into driverless test vehicles.
For now, driverless cars operate in isolated cases. It will be many years before they are reliable, affordable and widespread in all road and weather conditions. And I continue to worry that optimism about driverless cars will make people and policymakers avoid hard choices on inefficient and road clogging transportation and hold out instead for computer-piloted vehicles to solve everything — which they won’t.
But progress is progress. Recent developments point to promise for driverless car technology if we stay realistic about what it can and can’t do.
Oliver Cameron, the chief executive of the driverless car company Voyage, said one challenge facing this kind of technology is that people — assuming they aren’t drunk or distracted, which happens too often — are fairly adept at handling circumstances on the road they’ve never seen before. Computers are not.
One example Cameron mentioned is the apparently not uncommon problem of a driverless car encountering a flock of wild turkeys.
A human driver might honk or inch forward to try to shoo away the birds, but Cameron says Voyage’s computer system doesn’t know what to do besides freeze in place. “It sounds really simple, but you have to reliably stop or navigate around any and all obstacles,” he told me.
There are a zillion other scenarios like this that are individually uncommon but collectively make reliable self-driving cars tricky. And there is little room for error when lives are at stake.
So Voyage is starting “humble,” Cameron said. The company recently revamped its customized computer-piloted taxis to operate without a backup driver, and vehicles operate only in two retirement communities.
Low speeds, relatively simple road conditions and a small geography that Voyage computer systems have mapped in advance remove some of the complications and risk. And for seniors, access to door-to-door car service can materially improve their lives.
Even confined to fairly niche cases, Voyage deals with complexities that boggle the mind. The cars have backup systems to the backup systems. Settings prevent riders from grabbing the steering wheel or pressing the gas pedal while the car is in self-driving mode. (We all know people who would do this in a robot-piloted car.) Voyage also has people standing by who can take over cars remotely if they’re needed.
I asked Cameron when driverless cars are going to hit the roads in large numbers everywhere. He was hopeful but guardedly so given how driverless car backers have misjudged the technology’s difficulty.
“The optimist in me says things are only going to accelerate from here,” Cameron said. Then he paused and said he couldn’t give me a timeline. “It’s a non-answer,” he said.
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Tip of the Week
How to block spam texts
Last week, The New York Times’s personal tech columnist, Brian X. Chen, went over how to stop robocallers from bombarding our phones. Now he tackles a related annoyance: unsolicited text messages from marketers, political groups and others.
Here’s what we can do:
On iPhones, you can filter out messages from unknown senders. This doesn’t stop the texts, but they won’t make your phone vibrate or ding. The texts will show up in a list labeled “unknown senders.” That way, the unwanted texts don’t distract you or clog the messages you want to see from people you care about. To do this, open the Settings app, tap Messages, scroll down and toggle on Filter Unknown Senders.
You can also block a specific phone number from texting you. In the offending text message, tap the name and number at the top of the message and then tap the Info icon on the right. Tap the “info” button again and select Block this Caller.
Android device owners can also block specific numbers from sending them texts. On Pixel phones, for example, open the text message and then tap the icon in the upper right hand corner that looks like three vertical dots. Select Details and then choose Block & report spam.
There are also third-party apps that offer to prevent spammers from texting you, but I generally am not a fan of them. In my tests, those apps still let plenty of unwanted messages through — plus they get expensive to use over time.
We should continue pressing the mobile phone companies to fix this problem on a network level. Until then, we’re on our own with some imperfect tools.
Before we go …
From blah to influential thanks to the worst of social media: My colleague Kevin Roose has an engrossing, disturbing article about how a struggling news organization affiliated with a Chinese spiritual movement became a force in right-wing media. The organization, Epoch Times, did this by capitalizing on the incentives of Facebook and then YouTube to push hyperpartisan messages and conspiracy theories that were rewarded on those websites with more circulation and engagement.
Google is a verb. Alipay is the financial equivalent of a noun, verb, article, preposition and adjective: You want my colleague Ray Zhong to explain Ant Group’s Alipay, one of two widely used digital payment apps in China that have made cash and other forms of payments nearly obsolete in that country, and offer loans, investments and insurance policies.
How to talk to loved ones who share conspiracy theories: Charlie Warzel, an Opinion writer for The Times, encouraged talking to people about the mechanics of online information, walking them through a conspiracy to suss out its holes and not scolding or mocking loved ones for what they believe.
Hugs to this
Instead of bank branches on every corner in America, can we have these amazing dancing bank mascots from Thailand?