October 25, 2013

Is waiting in traffic a relic of the past?

Is waiting in traffic a relic of the past? Credit: odieresis / Flickr Creative Commons

Guests:

  • David Pogue, presenter for WGBH's NOVA
  • Chris Gerdes, professor at Stanford University

In one of the latest installments of NOVA's "Making Stuff" series, host David Pogue went on a test-drive that was a little out of the ordinary: it didn't involve an actual driver. That's because he was taking a spin in Shelly, a self-driving racecar developed at Stanford which can navigate twists and turns at breakneck speed all on its own.

For Pogue, the ride was not exactly smooth. "It was like the worst rollercoaster you've ever been on," he recounts in horror. But despite the shudders and bumps, Pogue says cars like Shelly may be the future of transportation, and that's a future he's looking forward to. Self-driving cars, unlike human drivers, don't get drunk, tired, or text while they're driving. "They're just smarter and more coherent than we humans are," he says.

Pogue and Gerdes discuss NOVA's "Making Stuff."

Chris Gerdes, left, and David Pogue discuss NOVA's "Making Stuff" series. Credit: PBS PressRoom / Flickr Creative Commons

To Chris Gerdes, part of the engineering team at Stanford behind Shelly, the promises of self-driving cars are plentiful - and not just on the level of the individual user. Having a fleet of self-driving cars on the road could not only introduce the concept of mobility on demand, but also create completely new flows of traffic without stoplights. "You can think of going from one end of Manhattan to the other end of Manhattan without ever having to stop," says Gerdes.

But Gerdes acknowledges that driving still involves some grey areas that are difficult to program out. He takes issue with the idea that driverless cars will eliminate human error - rather, he says, they shift it from the driver to the engineer. This has its benefits, to be sure: an engineer has more time to think about how to escape sticky driving situations than a panicking driver.

Driverless cars shift human error in dangerous situations from the driver to the programmer.

In tricky driving situations, driverless cars shift human error from the driver to the programmer. Credit: SergeyIT/ Flickr Creative Commons

But on the other hand, it also means that these cars have to make some tricky calls. In cases where accidents are unavoidable, what does the car decide to do? Does it prioritize protecting the occupants of the vehicle, or creating the least amount of disruption for other drivers on the road? It's a question that goes beyond engineering to the realm of ethics - a challenge Shelly might not quite be prepared to take on just yet.

Chris Gerdes, computers, driving, computing, Sci and Tech, technology, David Pogue, programming

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