Monthly Archives: June 2016

Trolley Problems

The New York Times has the latest in a long series of pop think pieces that wonder how driverless cars will deal with variations on the so-called “trolley problem”: is it ethical to make a decision that saves some people’s lives at the expense of another person’s life? This article asks whether your driverless car should hit a pedestrian to save your life. Not surprisingly, most people in the studies chose to save their own lives over that of a hypothetical pedestrian.

Should driverless cars be programmed to serve the greater good, even at the expense of the passenger?

How would you even know what the greater good is? What if the passenger has children in the car? What if the passenger is the only person in the car, but is the sole breadwinner for a large family and is taking care of disabled relatives? What if the passenger is 70 years old and the pedestrian is 35 years old? What if the passenger is 70 but in excellent health and the pedestrian is 35 with a terminal illness? What if the passenger in the car was on their way to commit a crime? Even if we, as a society, could agree on what the greater good might be, there would not be enough time to determine all the relevant information in time for anyone – human or machine – to make an ethical decision.

Quite simply, I do not think humanity is about to take the extraordinary step of allowing a fully automated system to decide who dies and who lives.

Instead, driverless cars will be expected to perform the same way we expect almost all other machines to perform: with an extreme deference to preserving human life. Think about the machines you interact with on a daily basis. You have to be negligent in the extreme to get killed by a machine because of something the machine couldn’t avoid doing (as opposed to something idiotic that the machine’s human operator might make it do). And even if you do something incredibly negligent, like step in front of a train or stick your arm inside rotating machinery, the machine’s owner might still end up with significant liability for your injury.

Many people view autonomous vehicles as incremental improvements to automobiles. And it’s true that there will be great improvements in safety from “driver assist” technologies like systems that help keep you in the lane and keep you from hitting the car or pedestrian in front of you. These technologies will save lives without a doubt.

However, full automation is not an incremental improvement. It’s a shift to a much different level of social/cultural expectations and liability. Drivers are held to extremely low levels of liability for damage they cause; in California, the state minimum is $15,000 for death to one person and $30,000 for death to multiple persons. In contrast, Metrolink paid out $4,200,000 for each death in the 2008 Chatsworth crash, and the number was only that low because of federal law that caps railroad liability at $200,000,000 per incident.

The reason railroads have much higher liability limits than drivers is that most people in the public identify as or with drivers, while very few people identify as railroads. If the state tried to raise the auto insurance minimums to $4 million per death, insurance premiums would skyrocket and there’d be a political revolt.

In other words, if you maim someone with your car, but you have the state minimum auto insurance and few assets, that person is shit out of luck. Google, on the other hand, is not going to have its liability capped at $15,000 per death. It has the financial wherewithal to pay for insurance that actually covers the damages caused by auto accidents, it has the assets to pay damages in excess of its insurance limits, and it’s not going to get any sympathy from the public if a driverless car runs over someone’s kid, someone’s mom, or someone’s grandpa.

It seems to me, then, that fully autonomous vehicles will by necessity take a very large discrete step towards eliminating deaths from automobiles. They will be programmed to do so by having very conservative software. The large corporations – and their insurers – responsible for the software, and maybe for owning and operating the vehicles as well, will demand it. No one is going to accept an incremental improvement in safety in exchange for a hundredfold increase in liability. Fully autonomous vehicles will only kill someone in cases where the victim is grossly negligent, and even then, there will likely be out of court settlements.

The nature of Silicon Valley frequently rewards entrepreneurs for being the first to the market with a product, even it means frequent incremental updates to fix bugs. As long as they don’t deal with the security of private data, software problems usually have minor consequences. Apps freeze and crash; Google Maps has its share of erroneous data; formatting in Word is still frustrating as hell. But as Theranos shows, other industries don’t work that way.

Railroad signaling may offer clues as to what will be expected of fully autonomous vehicles. Braking performance assumptions are very conservative. Automatic train control is not expected to be marginally safer than human drivers; it’s expected to completely eliminate train to train collisions. The system is designed to assume it’s not safe to move unless otherwise directed, not to assume that it’s okay to move unless informed otherwise. Railroads were just forced to spend billions on Positive Train Control, one function of which is to help protect railway workers against the trolley problem by insuring it never comes up in the first place.

It’s not that incremental improvements aren’t good. It’s just that cultural expectations change when we turn a task over to a machine. We don’t expect machines to make ethical decisions, we expect them to be safe enough that they never have to.


What Kind of Transportation Will LA Need in 2066?

(Note: as a civil engineer, I obviously have a self-interest in infrastructure financing.)

An opinion piece in today’s LA Times wonders if LA Metro’s proposed ballot initiative to fund mass transit, road, bike, and pedestrian improvements will soon be obsolete due to changes like driverless cars, hyperloop, and self-contained communities.

With the usual caveat that anything is possible and predicting the future is hard, I think this is pretty unlikely. Assuming the projects are well-executed, LA Metro’s plan will prove to be a beneficial investment in the region’s infrastructure.

As far as innovation in transportation goes, remember that transportation is a well-established industry. The major modes of transportation we use were developed decades ago: railroads in the mid 1800s, bicycles in the late 1800s, cars in the early 1900s, and airplanes in the mid 1900s. The last truly revolutionary changes in transportation were what – the jet engine for commercial air travel and containerization for freight? It’s possible a new technology like hyperloop will be developed and come to market; however, as currently conceived, hyperloop is a low-capacity luxury intercity service, not a solution for local mobility in cities.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) should probably be analyzed in the same way. They are an incremental improvement on long-standing technology, not a new type of transportation. At this point, the theorized increases in highway capacity and reductions in car ownership are just that: theoretical. Trains and airplanes, which operate in much more controlled environments, don’t follow each other so closely that crashes are inevitable if something goes wrong, which is an underlying assumption of achieving major capacity increases with AVs. They will be great for safety, but the number of fatalities per billion miles traveled has fallen from over 200 in the 1920s to less than 20 today, thanks to things like better mechanical engineering for cars and better civil engineering for roads. AVs aren’t a revolution in safety; they’re just finishing a job that’s over 90% done. And if AVs do reduce the cost of driving, they may increase car ownership rather than decrease it.

Self-contained communities are also unlikely, because they buck the pattern of how people use cities. As cities grow, they can serve an increasing diversity and specialization of interests, and accessing them requires good transportation across the region. For example, let’s say you work in finance, which concentrates in downtown LA. You’re going to want to live somewhere convenient to downtown, as will most of your coworkers. However, you might really like Chinese food, and want to live in the San Gabriel Valley, while one of your coworkers might really like the beach and want to live in Santa Monica. Your partner might work in a logistics park in Ontario, and might really like the food in Little Saigon in Orange County. People and businesses distribute themselves around the region on different patterns. You can only take advantage of everything the city offers if you can easily travel around it. Logistics improvements like same-day delivery just invert the trip; instead of you traveling to the amenity, the amenity travels to you. Telecommuting will work well for a small set of people, poorly for a larger set of people, and not at all for an even larger group.

The transportation we need in 2016 is not very different from what we needed in 1966; in fact, the transportation we need in 2016 is not even all that different from what we needed in 1916, when rapid transit lines and electric railways were proliferating, and the first controlled access roadways were less than a decade away. SoCal is going to keep growing, and we’re going to need to fix our roads, expand transit, and improve bike and ped facilities. The LA Metro ballot initiative is something we can do today to help meet these needs for decades to come, and anyone who cares about the future of LA should strongly consider supporting it, rather than hoping for technological silver bullets to solve our transportation problems.

Three Stories

On Sunday, I traveled back from the east coast, and met three people who experience LA in very different ways.

The first person barely made it onto our 6am flight, having received an epic send-off party from friends the night before. They were fresh out of school, and had just landed their first job at a marketing firm in El Segundo. Sunday they moved across the country; Monday was their first day of work. They got an apartment in El Segundo, and were excited to live near the beach and start their job, but were worried that not owning a car would make it harder to make friends. I offered a welcome and encouragement, but flying out of Boston, I couldn’t deny that not having a car in El Segundo would impact one’s social life.

The second person picked me up on the upper level of the LAX central terminal area – a driver for a popular ridesharing app. They had moved to LA in 1990 with a sibling to try to pursue a career in music. It’s a tough industry and the early 90s were a very tough economic time for LA, and they hadn’t found the success they’d hoped for. They now live in the far west of the Valley, having gotten a deal on rent from an in-law. The sibling had already departed for the Midwest; they were considering doing the same, where their money would go a lot further.

The third person is a friend of a friend, who stopped by to chat after lunch. They had moved to the Inland Empire a couple years ago to help take care of family. However, they live in a very family-oriented area (like you do in the IE) but do not have children, and miss the social and cultural opportunities of LA. The long drive from the IE makes it difficult to take advantage of the city, and the IE does not offer the same opportunities for one’s personal life as LA.

These are three people out of 18 million in LA/OC/IE, at different points in life, going in different directions. The land use planning system that we’ve constructed doesn’t work for them. There are millions of other stories out there with the same thread connecting them. There are probably plenty of people who’d want to live in El Segundo without a car and have lots of friends close by. There are many people that want to pursue artistic work that doesn’t pay well but enriches LA’s culture, who are needlessly punished by high housing costs. There are lots of people in the IE who don’t have families and would like to have a greater variety of social and cultural opportunities nearby.

Rigidly-defined land use planning forever locks neighborhoods, cities, and regions into the patterns chosen by a very small portion of people – usually very vocal opponents of any development other than single family homes. More importantly, it locks people into those patterns – it shapes and restricts their lives, their dreams & opportunities.

It’s long since time to dispel with the myth that everyone wants the same type of suburban family-oriented development, and that the desires of the people who do want that type of development should absolutely trump the hopes of everyone else. It’s also time to recognize that the social, economic, and cultural outcomes are what matter, not the built form of the city. SoCal is a big place; we have plenty of room to allow all kinds of development and for everyone to pursue their dreams.