Brainless Beasts

It is, of course, August when the news gets silly and even the idea of a self-driving truck seems a good one.

For me, stuck behind a truck at 80mph with another up my bum and blocked in by a third is horrible enough.

The knowledge that one or other or all three has no driver would freak me out.

But here we have Uber giving away 1% of its equity (valued at a fantastic $680 million) plus 20% of any profits it makes from trucking, to acquire a six month old start-up based in a garage south of Market in San Francisco which retro-fits self-driving kit onto trucks.

To be precise the company, Otto, has so far retro-fitted five trucks.

Otto has 90 people and they must be incredibly clever to be worth $680 million because the company seems to have few other assets apart from the algorithms they have developed to translate the data from the sensors they install on trucks into driving instructions.

Well it’s hot, it’s August, we’re talking about wacky Californians, Uber lost $1.3 billion in H1, it all seems a bit mad and maybe everything will work out OK in the end.

I just hope none of these brainless beasts is coming to a road near me anytime soon.



  1. Indeed it is Chris as are the trains between terminals at airports. But these run on rails, go pretty slowly and have zero competing traffic

  2. Yes indeed John Merrill, there are so many thorny questions about autonomous vehicles and so very few answers

  3. I still think autonomous cars are a daft idea. Most cars are bought by individuals and many like/enjoy driving. Why would they pay extra for something they don’t want. So, self driving lorries will still have to cope with irrational humans!

    Most of these ideas rely on some form of GPS overlaid on a road map. Unlike air where routes are defined, roads change. I have been driving in the middle of field several times according to my sat nav because of a bypass or altered junction layout which has not yet been updated. I wonder how a self driving truck will cope with driving through a newly planted hedge? I assume (hope) a failsafe kicks in and the truck comes to a stop. With no driver what happens next? Does the truck call home for help? Meanwhile traffic backs up for miles…

  4. My feelings too, Devgit

  5. Shame – driverless trains can be great fun especially if you sit at the front of the train and pretend to be the driver – well my idea of fun anyway.
    My favourite has to be the Wenhu Line in Taipei from the Nangang Exhibition Centre to the Taipei Zoo, mainly because it’s largely overground and the scenery is nice along all the route. A great way to spend some quality time in Taipei on a Sunday afternoon at a bargain price. You can always visit the zoo if you must. You might have to compete with some pesky kids with the same idea of being the train driver though.
    Later on, stop at the Brass Monkey pub ( near Nanjing Fuxing station ) for a decent selection of beers and pub food.
    For anyone who is interested –
    Taipei MRT Map –
    Brass Monkey – – choose the Fuxing ( seriously ) one.

  6. ASLEF, Fred

  7. Self driving trains have been well proven and safe and the technology is extremely simple compared to road based vehicles. But, we’ve yet to see them in the UK. Wonder why that is?

  8. Everything you say is true DontAgree but it is irrefutable that we still put human drivers in planes and, IMHO, we will keep putting them in cars for the foreseeable future – not for ever, but for at least a decade or two.

    • Aircraft electronics and software have incredibly high standards, almost space grade hardware, and rigorous in depth maintenance cycles. Yet they still struggle to get good enough reliability. Compare that to the likely quality of hardware, software and electronics controlling a relatively low cost commercial car. We have seen only recently how even just throttle by wire (Toyota) has been unreliable and resulted in accidents. And this autonomous driving is pretty new technology (bleeding edge takes on a whole new meaning). I think its very scary.

  9. Thanks DontAgree I’ve corrected it to AnotherDavid

  10. I did not say computers are perfect or without failure. I merely made the observation that computers today are better than humans at flying. And because of that fact we humans have decided that it is a wise decision to let computers do most of the flying.

    For safety reason we do keep human backups at the ready in case the computers fail, because indeed humans are still better at dealing with situations where things start failing. Having a backup makes perfect sense which so many lives at stake. Of course those backups need to be properly trained, which apparently was not the case of AF.

    Also note that we are still improving the computers for flying, thus making flying ever safer (not counting the terrorist attacks and humans deliberately flying into a mountain).

    I am very confident that it is merely a matter of time before driving a car/truck is going to taken over by computers. And the simple reason for that is because it will cost less human lives to make this happen. And ultimately that will probably mean that human driving will be relegated to the entertainment industry …

    Keep in mind that 20 years ago very few people predicted that today most commercial flying would be done by computers while at the same time reducing accidents.

  11. I remember the AF crash only too well AnotherDavid, because I was flying the same route a few hours later and heard about the AF crash on the way to the airport. I was on BA luckily for me. It shows how machines can go wrong which is something the autonomous car lobby doesn’t seem to accept.

  12. The Air France crash in the Atlantic is food for thought. The computers got confused due to iced up sensors and the pilots had forgotten or at least lost the ability to understand the situation and deal with it. Plane ends up in the depths of the ocean.
    Not sure how a car that gets confused going down a Motorway at 70mph (as they won’t be allowed to speed) will react? Will there be a big red “stop” button, and does that make the drunk in the front seat a driver, as he has a big red stop button to press when something does go wrong?

  13. My feelings exactly, The Baron, it’s the same sort of situation as trying to replicate the human brain – it’s a damn sight more difficult than we think

  14. Well absolutely DontAgree, planes are mostly flown by computers but, unlike cars, they are directed along paths which should avoid collisions. And, of course, every plane still has two human drivers on board. Periodically we hear about the on-board computers making incorrect decisions and stalling or diving planes. The humans are there to cope with the computer failures. The idea that a computer will work with 100% reliability when it is installed in a car seems very bizarre to me.

  15. Well Yes AnotherDavid, I didn’t think they’d replaced Air Traffic Controllers with computers yet. And we all know that Air Traffic Control periodically goes down and the job has to be done manually. And Yes planes can be flown by computers but we still have pilots and – quite often – the pilots save planes from disaster. Malfunctioning computers have sent planes into stalls and into dives to destruction. And Yes, the Law of Random Events rules on the road where human unpredictability causes mayhem and no computer made by man could predict human unpredictability. But I’ve suffered, as we all have, from the hair-tearing infuriation of computers crashing accompanied by obscure error messages. On the road, computer glitches could mean death rather than infuriation. The oddity is that everyone seems to assume that computer-controlled cars will work perfectly, totally reliably and permanently perfect, with never a glitch, a crash or a mistake. In this assumption madness lies IMHO.

  16. Planes operate in a very well controlled space, operators with limited capabilities way below them. Cars and trucks do not operate in anything like a controlled space, as I nearly found out the other night when a car went right at a roundabout in the left lane causing a lot of braking and close calls, not sure how a Google or Uber car would have coped with that.

    • Yeah, there’s so many questions about what happens when things go wrong around automated traffic flow. Even simple, non-accident/danger things: for example, you find yoursel in the wrong lane and indicate for some kind soul to leave a space for you to nudge in. Would a convoy of automated trucks to your side let you in? (OTOH, full marks to any automated system that can identify the arse roaring past the queue up the empty lane that all the signs are indicating comes to an end soon and then give the chancing, cheeky shite the bum’s-rush when they try to merge later.)

      Presumably (?) pilots need to intervene when an aircraft on automated approach is requested by the tower to abort and go around due to some air-traffic problem? What happens when there is no “pilot” in an automated truck?

  17. Yes these are good points DontAgree, but I am surprised at the way everyone seems to assume that computer controlled cars will work perfectly when we have all experienced the most ghastly glitches and foul-ups when computers are used for anything.

    • Here is where I feel compelled to repeat my earlier observation that airplanes these days are mostly flown by computers … and the bottom line result is less accidents than compared with the time while humans were still in control.

      So yes I still am convinced that ultimately cars/trucks controlled by computers will be the safer solution, as long as they use the same concept as airplanes, i.e. operate without the need for externally supplied information. The only secure connection is disconnection.

  18. Once the bugs are out … the probability of one of those massive road robots causing an accident will be much lower (and continue to improve to approach zero) than the (very) flawed humans currently driving them.

    Of course we also know that no system will ever be 100% secure (in the news today it said the iPhone got hacked) … so the biggest risk will be terrorist hackers (or bored teenagers) taking over said massive road robots and gleefully reducing your boxed in car to less than half its’ intended length … or go on a horrific rampage down a pedestrian area … then again with humans in charge that risk is not zero either as we sadly have seen in Nice.

    You have frequently mentioned that a big hurdle for autonomous cars is that they require a very detailed digital map and very reliable high speed connection to cary that data. If you ask me the security risk is only solvable by eliminating all (inbound) connections, certainly while in motion. Security is the harder problem to solve.

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