The Enemies of the Autonomous Vehicle

Sometimes when you are on the brink of a rebellion, it’s hard to see what’s happening around you.

Chandler, Arizona, has become a hot­bed of attacks on autonomous vehicles (AVs). Over the past three years, people have assaulted self-driving cars in the city nearly two dozen times, pelting them with rocks, trying to run them off the road, challenging them to games of chicken, and slashing their tires. One man even threatened an AV with a .22-caliber revolver.

But police chief Sean Duggan says Chandler is “absolutely not” at the forefront of a rebellion between humans and machines. “These are anomalies within themselves,” he says. “Each [perpetrator] has a different story. When you drill down and get to the person who’s conducting this, there’s a variety of other supporting issues of why they acted like that. Some may have lost their job, or it was just a bad day. Every story, every incident is different. I haven’t seen any cause for concern that there is a movement, [that] there’s something afoot, where these vehicles are being targeted.”

According to a AAA survey of public sentiment on AVs from earlier this year, nearly three-quarters of Americans expressed fear of riding in a self-driving car.

Despite Duggan’s assessment, we’re less optimistic that these incidents don’t speak to larger unrest about driverless cars. The facts suggest that these attacks are based on residents’ fears and frustrations with the technology—concerns unlikely to be soothed anytime soon.
In 2016, Google’s AV subsidiary, Waymo, brought its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to town. Hundreds of them now prowl the streets 24/7, collectively logging more than 25,000 miles per day. Until the spring of 2018, Uber was also testing its autonomous cars in the nearby city of Tempe. Then one of the company’s test vehicles struck and killed a 49-year-old woman, Elaine Herz­berg. The man who threatened a Waymo van with a gun expressed outrage over Herzberg’s death. And other perpetrators said they were exasperated with the minivans’ intrusions on the privacy and safety of their quiet neighbourhoods.

“No national or industry standards currently exist for the regulation of these vehicles. There is no infrastructure plan for their rollout or strategy for how human-driven vehicles and robocars will cohabit the road.”

Organizations are already forming to protect the act of driving and defend against the more nefarious practices buried in autonomy. While these groups seem to be fueled by passion, many lack the “from our cold dead hands” stridency integral to other resistance movements. The Human Driving Association was founded in 2018 to advocate for making cars safer while protecting the freedom to own and drive them. Introduced via a 12-point “manifesto” published by The Drive, the organization now has nearly 10,000 members. Hagerty, one of the largest insurers of vintage and collectable cars, has launched a similar initiative. Called “Safe Driving,” it’s dedicated to preserving the right of humans to drive and celebrating the joy that driving can bring, all while embracing lifesaving automotive technologies.

These are dystopian fears that not everyone has. In ending our conversation with Duggan, we bring up this very threat, that of evil, monopolizing megacorporations—like Skynet from The Terminator and, perhaps a bit panderingly, Omni Consumer Products from RoboCop—as speculative possibilities for where the AV narrative could go in Chandler.

“I’m not a sci-fi guy,” Duggan says coolly. “I don’t really watch those movies. I’ve been policing for 33 years. Anything’s a possibility. But I’m not really preparing for that.”

The Workers

Autonomous vehicles are increasingly finding opposition among America’s nearly 4.5 million professional drivers, an occupation that represents almost 3 percent of our workforce. Uber and Lyft, the United States Postal Service and UPS, and private and public bus services are all working fiercely on AVs to replace human operators. The tech may arrive first in long-haul trucking. California’s TuSimple is already operating self-driving tractor-trailers, hauling commercial freight on public highways in Arizona. Safety drivers are onboard for now. But according to Chuck Price, TuSimple’s chief product officer, the company plans to deploy fully driverless 80,000-pound semis by the end of 2020.

Hoffa doesn’t seem like a Luddite. He recognizes that his 116-year-old union—whose logo features a team of harnessed horses, from when its members used draft animals to move goods—will need to adapt. He’s also aware that technological change often creates new ancillary jobs. But he advocates for human-focused planning. To this end, he proposes that money saved by the industry be placed in a fund to be used for training displaced drivers for careers in new fields. He also suggests guaranteeing redundant workers the opportunity to fill the jobs that emerge due to automation. “We want the future to include workers,” says Hoffa. “We want to make sure that workers have a better life. Not go the other way, where they’re displaced and don’t have jobs. It isn’t about whether you can make money. You just can’t throw these people into a scrapheap.”

Price claims that when these technologies actually arrive, the rollout will be slow. TuSimple and other AV companies have begun to partner with local colleges to provide job-training programs aimed at delivering fresh (nonunion) technical workers into their pipeline. But little broad thought (or policy proposals) has been given to mitigating the potentially immense workforce shifts that AVs may bring.

The Hackers

Douglas Rushkoff, a media-theory professor at the City University of New York and progenitor of the terms “digital native,” “viral media,” and “social currency,” was prescient in imagining public backlash to a robotized world populated by signs and signals that are readable only by machines. “When they were first talking about autonomous vehicles 10 years ago,” Rushkoff says, “I imagined posses of skateboard kids going out at night with spray cans and redrawing street lines to get [AVs] to drive off cliffs or go in circles.”

This leads us to one of the most fearsome features of AVs: their capacity to be compromised by rogue actors. Cars could be taken over remotely and manipulated, militarized, or held hostage for ransom. According to David Barzilai, co-founder of automotive cybersecurity firm Karamba Security, “There’s a consistent pattern. When systems become connected, they get hacked.”

This vulnerability to hacking increases with the quantity of code contained in the product’s software. A commercial jet has 15 million lines of code. A contemporary luxury car has 100 million. An autonomous car is estimated to have more than 300 million.

“Hacking today is business,” says Barzilai. “It’s driven more by money, less by fear. In order to gain the profit of the hacking attempt, you need to make the threat, demonstrate the threat, but not do irreversible damage. And it’s more to frighten the OEMs, not the consumers. The idea is to tell the OEMs, ‘I have the capability to shut down your fleet. If you don’t believe me, watch me shut down a few cars in a random suburb.’ “

“So, are we doomed?” we ask Barzilai.

He pauses for a moment. “I would say yes.”

The Weather

When we recently drove a Cadillac CT6 equipped with the brand’s sophisticated Super Cruise hands-free driver-assistance tech, we ran into a bit of trouble. No matter how many times we tried to engage the system, in whatever appropriately geo-mapped highway location we were in, it would not take. When we confronted a Cadillac employee about this, he suggested that the problem might be that it was “too sunny.”

Weather and visibility play key roles in the functionality of the suite of cameras and sensors required for driverless cars to “see.” “Lidar is extremely sensitive to particles in the air,” says Price. “Rain or sand or fog refracts the laser beam as it’s travelling out, meaning the signals either get lost or return distorted and unusable. Cameras, on the other hand, are quite resilient to weather, to snow and rain, until it gets extremely heavy” and their lenses get blocked.

Suppliers are developing workarounds. Wipers, heated shields, and specially treated surfaces are used to prevent precipitation buildup. Artificial-intelligence systems are trained to interpret and identify objects distorted by the weather. Vehicle-control algorithms are designed to enhance on-road stability. And remote operators maintain oversight, monitoring environmental conditions and rerouting vehicles before they enter areas that are beyond their operational design domain.

Autonomous cars are also being trained to monitor themselves and respond accordingly. “So if visibility drops below a certain point, they go into a degraded mode where the vehicle automatically pulls over to the side of the road,” says Price. “Or, depending on the severity, it may just decelerate and find a safe location along the mission route.”

Lines of idling, unmanned, unguarded trucks hemmed in by weather and filled with valuable goods. Does anyone else see the plot to a heist movie?

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