Up to: Sustainability of progress
Up to: What is progress?
There have been a number of proposals for automatic control
of cars. Mostly, they have involved simple servo-mechanisms that
sense a cable buried in the roadway and some other mechanism for
sensing the distance of the car ahead. Such a scheme was studied at
RCA at the instigation of Zworykin, but the work was eventually
In science fiction, systems in which a single computer
controls all the cars in a wide area have been depicted but without
telling how the system would actually work.
We are also proposing the computer control of cars. Our
system requires a computer in the car equipped with television camera
input that uses the same visual input available to the human driver.
Essentially, we are proposing an automatic chauffeur. Our goal is a
system with the following qualities:
Now consider the problems that have to be solved in
order to realize the system.
- The user enters the destination with a keyboard or selects from a
menu, and the car drives him there. Other commands include: change
destination, stop at that rest room or restaurant, go slow, go at
- The user need not be a driver and need not even accompany
the car. This would permit children, old people, and the blind
greater personal freedom. It also permits a husband to be driven to
work, then send the car home for his wife's use, and permits her to
send it back for him at the end of the day. The car can be sent for
servicing or to a store where a telephone ordered purchase will be
put in it. If there is a suitable telephone system, the car can
deliver a user to a place where there is no parking, go away and
park, and return when summoned. Thus, the system is to have almost
all of the capabilities of a chauffeur.
- In contrast to a system based on a central computer, the
proposed system will be of advantage to the first person who buys
one, whether anyone else has it or not. It will require no change in
existing roads, but will be able to take orders from traffic control
computers when they are installed. When freeway lanes can be
dedicated to computer controlled cars they will multiply the capacity
of existing freeways by permitting 80 mile per hour bumper-to-bumper
traffic with greater safety than we have at present. Since the
system is a product and not a public utility, competition among
suppliers will be possible.
- A key goal is to achieve greater safety than we have at
present. A fivefold reduction in fatalities is probably required to
make the system acceptable. Much better is possible since humans
really are rather bad drivers, but complete safety cannot be
The nature and extent of the required effort are still not easy to forsee.
Here are some requirements.
- Performance of the computer, cameras, and associated
- High range personal computers seem to be fast
enough and to have enough memory for the job.
- Cost of the computer and other electronics
- At present prices, the cost of the electronics would not double
the price of a car.
- Reliability of the computer and other electronics
- We can attempt to compute the required reliability by
demanding that present traffic fatalities be reduced to a fifth the
present number, i.e. to 10,000 per year, and by allocating only half
of these fatalities to unreliability of the electronics. This
further depends on the fraction of failures that lead to fatality
which can be kept quite low by having the computer check its health
and that of the electronics every tenth of a second, giving it
programs for dealing with partial failures, and providing a ``dead man
switch'' for stopping the car if the computer fails to reassure it
every tenth second. There are many possibilities in this direction
and the expenditure of much cleverness is called for. The reader is
advised against using his unaided intuition to estimate the results.
Present computer failure rates may be acceptable.
- Performance of the driving programs
- Developing the required
computer programs is the most difficult of the required tasks; it will
probably take the longest time; and the amount of time required is
very difficult to predict. Work on computer control of vehicles
started at the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Project in
the late 1960s. An experimental vehicle was equipped with a
television camera and connected to the computer with a two-way TV and
radio link. A simple program to guide the vehicle to follow a white
line like that in a road wassuccessfully checked out, and
programs for determining the course of the road and detecting cars and
other obstacles were developed. The project was not continued at that
time mainly for financial reasons. However it is doubtful that an
automatic chauffeur could have been developed at that time with
a plausible amount of money and dedication.
In the 1980s and 90s computer controlled vehicles were developed at
Carnegie-Mellon University and other places. They are still far from
the performance required for an automatic chauffeur.
After the required performance is demonstrated and before the
system can be trusted without a human driver an extensive testing
program is required. To demonstrate that the system is five times
safer than a human driver approximately 25,000 automobile years will
be required. This might be reduced somewhat by concentrating testing
on situations in which humans make most of their fatal mistakes, but
we would still need to be sure that situations in which the program
made fatal blunders peculiar to the computer system were rare enough.
Developments in the mathematical theory of computation may permit
getting rid of ordinary programming errors and proving that they are
absent, but possible inadequacies in the algorithms themselves can
only be obviated by testing.
- Television equipment capable of seeing into shadows in the presence
of brightly illuminated areas.
- The program must be able to identify many different kinds of
objects on the road such as: persons, vehicles,
animals, traffic police, shadows, pieces of paper, cardboard boxes,
objects that have dropped from vehicles, traffic signs and other
signals, intersections, house numbers, and other information required
- It will have to be equipped with programs to
recognize and deal with a variety of emergency conditions. It will
surely be possible to make it better at this than humans since its
attention won't lapse, it can sense the mechanical condition of the
car continuously, and it can look to the side, underneath the car,
and behind every second.
qualified human drivers will require
changes in the law. Fortunately, testing such systems with a driver
present to take over if necessary does not. Moreover, computer driven
cars will not be able to obey oral instructions from policemen , so a
digital system will have to be developed. A general resistance to
technological innovation on the part of the literary culture will
have to be overcome, but it seems to me that after the test phase the
advantages will be clear enough so that this will not be difficult.
The development of computer controlled cars will cost
several billions of dollars. A computer program capable of
reliably taking care of all the contingencies that can arise in
driving a car will have to be more complex than any ever written, and
adequate testing will require a complex organization. Fortunately,
The commitment of large amounts of money will be required only after
spectacular though unreliable performance will have been
Finally, we would like to deal with some arguments that might
be raised against supporting research aimed at computer controlled
We have dealt elsewhere with arguments against the use of cars at all.
Some argue for simpler schemes of automatic control.
The buried cable and other simple schemes do not increase
human freedom and convenience. They only permit us to use the
freeways a bit more efficiently. Because of their inability to
detect dogs, children, potholes, and objects that have fallen from
trucks they may require unrealizable control of access to the highway
in order to achieve safety.
Some argue for various schemes for automated mass transportation. The
automobile can go point to point in areas of both low and high
density. These advantages should not and will not voluntarily be
given up. Improved mass transportation may come, but we predict that
the automobile will be given up only for something that works better
in all ways such as an individual computer controlled flying machine
capable of point to point transportation.