Where Is My Driverless Car?

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The pandemic has accelerated some long-predicted technology habits like telemedicine and online grocery shopping. But driverless car technology might be kicked into reverse.

The ubiquitous computer-driven car that seemed just around the corner for a decade is now further away than ever.

I want driverless cars to work. They could spare us a lot of needless death. But there are big obstacles to the technology, including that it doesn’t work so well (yet), threatens to bankrupt all but the richest companies that try it and might never solve many of the problems we hoped it would address.

The struggles of robot cars make me wonder if it’s possible to shoot for the moon with technology without shooting ourselves in the foot by hoping for magic.

This is slowing driverless cars’ development, but as my colleagues wrote, the problems are bigger. We can’t blame the coronavirus for everything. The technology needed to make the cars safe is even harder to master than companies thought — and the problems the tech is trying to fix are even bigger.

The optimism slowly gave way to the reality of the challenge: A self-driving car must “read” and predict what’s happening around it and respond in fractions of a second. Compared to airplanes on autopilot, vehicles on the road must digest far more information from other cars and people acting unpredictably. Any slip could mean someone dies.

That’s still an incredible achievement, and more advances are coming. But driverless cars need to be everywhere to make us truly safer and achieve other hoped-for societal benefits.

Even most driverless car optimists now say the technology won’t be ready for mainstream use and affordable for many more years.

An even more sobering thought is that driverless cars might make some problems we want them to solve — like traffic, sprawl and air pollution — even worse. If driverless cars quadruple the capacity of highway lanes, but people travel many more miles when they don’t have to do the driving, then traffic may not get better.

We want ambitious technology that can really change the world. But sometimes I worry that optimism can make us less likely to confront the reality of congestion, air pollution and road safety. My colleague Farhad Manjoo, writing about a different issue, reached a similar conclusion. Technology can’t fix everything. People are going to have to make hard choices to solve hard problems.

Here’s the dirty secret of delivering meals to our door: It costs a fortune, and almost everyone involved in getting food to our homes hates it.

For years, many restaurants have gritted their teeth and worked with food delivery companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash, hoping they’d get enough new customers to make the fees they pay worthwhile.

The food delivery companies mostly lost money on each order, but they hoped they eventually could stop the bleeding. (Some of them also said they believed that deliveries with driverless vehicles would fix their losses, but, ahem. See above.)

The true cost of food delivery is a brutal economic reality that most of us never consider, unless we investigate the hidden markups on our cheeseburger dinners.

What you need to know is the food delivery companies likely believe their future depends on mushing together to get big and muscular enough to raise prices for restaurants and for diners like us.

Food delivery is here to stay, probably. We’ll all just have to pay more for it.

  • Ready the troops for a misinformation war: My colleague Kevin Roose worries that anti-vaccine activists will spin reasonable concerns about a potential coronavirus vaccine “into widespread, unfounded fears about its safety.” He says that public health officials, internet companies and all of us must lay the groundwork now to restore people’s faith in medicine, stop bogus information from spreading and reach loved ones who are susceptible to anti-vaccine propaganda.

  • Hooray, innovation in fraud! Brian X. Chen, The Times’s consumer technology writer, has practical advice to spot and stop pandemic-related scams, which are now everywhere.

  • Fighting technology surveillance, with technology: Tech-savvy Indians are finding workarounds to what they believe are their government’s invasive tactics with its coronavirus-tracking app, BuzzFeed News reported.

This cat does NOT look amused at the human dancing behind it. That judgmental stare at the camera is everything.

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