World

Driverless cars racing toward us

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At the Clark gas station in Berea, Ohio, the attendant, Jack, would check the oil in our Ford station wagon, squeegee the windows, pump the gas, then thank my mother for stopping by while handing each of us kids in the back seat a stick of gum.

As nice as that was, turns out that customers like my mother would happily fire Jack to save 5 cents a gallon. Not that we were ever asked. He just vanished. Too bad; I kinda liked Jack.

Then again, I liked telephone operators, department store clerks — my grandmother was one, at the May Co. — elevator operators and bank tellers. That last group lingers past their sell-by date — my bank typically has one teller on duty, and I will stride past open ATMs to wait in line for the brief pleasant human interaction, trying to forestall the unavoidable day when I walk over to the window and it’ll be shuttered.

People are expensive, and getting the heave-ho everywhere possible. When I went through the huge Amazon fulfillment center in Monee, my heart didn’t break for the human workers, eyes locked on video screens, arms flying like demented octopi to grab items from seven-foot-tall revolving robot pods to toss into passing cardboard boxes. Rather, I nodded grimly, watched the clockwork efficiency of those pods, and wondered whether the humans would be utterly gone from Amazon warehouses in 10 years — or five.

Or, about the same time an A.I. program will spit out newspaper columns finely calibrated to the ideal comfort/outrage ratio to keep readers coming back — or would, if anyone wanted such a thing, if they weren’t all staring transfixed at an endless algorithm loop of car crashes, seductive dances and clips from “The Sopranos.”

Until then, each new step into our brave new world feels significant. It was last Friday, visiting my son in Phoenix that, at 7th and Van Buren, I noticed a a passing white car, drawn by the round apparatus on its roof topped with some kind of spinning device. I looked inside, and was not surprised by what I saw — or, rather, didn’t see: no driver.

“That’s so weird!” I said.

Waymo’s fleet of driverless Jaguar taxis have been doing 10,000 trips a week in San Francisco and Phoenix and will someday crush Uber and Lyft the way Uber and Lyft crushed Yellow and Checker.

Seeing a car with no driver is strange, now. But I’m 100% confident that, in a decade, encountering one will be as strange as looking into the kitchen and seeing a squat machine washing your dishes.

Watch the brief video I shot as the thing sped off. The spinning thingies — on the roof and front fenders — are a lidar system. Similar to radar, lidar uses laser pulses instead of radio waves to measure distance. People worry about safety, perhaps as a way of ignoring the fact that automatic systems are far safer than human guidance. “The world’s most experienced driver,” is the slogan of Waymo, a venture of Google’s parent Alphabet and GM’s Cruise.

Had I been in work mode, and not in a rare laze-about-chatting mode — the presence of familiar people will do that — I’d of course have ridden a Waymo, so as to relate the full experience to you. Though such reports exist, and they all run along the same vein of, “Odd at first, then accepted with a shrug.” You don’t stand in an elevator, waiting for somebody to ask which floor.

Waymo is taking on Los Angeles next, and will only say they’re coming to cities such as Chicago “as soon as possible.” Don’t expect the City Council to bail out taxi drivers — in 2017, Illinois passed a law banning local ordinances against self-driving cars. Such laws don’t work forever anyway. Just this month, Oregon passed a law allowing drivers to pump their own gas. Leaving New Jersey as the only state where pumping your own gas is a crime — a $250 fine if a driver touches the pump.

I’m surprised New Jersey has held out so long. Laws to hold back the technological tide aren’t in place long and look silly later — the dairy industry banned margarine makers from dying their product yellow. Someday, drivers will go the way of horse-drawn sleighs, and a child soon to be born will excitedly report at dinnertime, “I was in a car driven by a person!”



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