Readers respond to a March 2018 article about the future of autonomous vehicles.
Will I ever get to experience turning 16 and getting my driver’s license? Will I get to learn how to do doughnuts on a snowy afternoon with my dad in a high school parking lot? These are the questions that loom in the back of my mind as I watch my sister prepare to get her learner’s permit. Although I value how much safer and economical autonomous cars are, what about when they break down and we don’t know how to drive a “normal” car?
Will I be taught how to control a “robot” car rather than how to steer clear of objects in the road? I was glad this topic was brought to light and hope to see more articles for those of us who still look forward to learning how to drive.
St. Louis, Missouri
I read the article with a mix of excitement and frustration.
Excitement because I work for a company that is feverishly churning out components for detection and ranging systems for driverless cars at a rate that surely indicates the tremendous impact this technology is about to have, and because I was intrigued to find out what is the “last 10 percent” needed to complete the transition to autonomous vehicles. (I was hoping it wasn’t our company!)
Frustration, because the article never made clear what that 10 percent is.
John S. Warren, PhD ’67
East Dummerston, Vermont
I would love to have self-driving vehicles as the norm.
I’d love it even more so having been a “computer geek” (or professional?) since the late ’60s. (And pushing age 82 with a mechanical heart valve and pacemaker, I do adore many such techno-goodies.)
Nonetheless, I’ve long hyped Warren’s First Rule of Computing: Never trust a machine!
Most of my real-world programming experience was in process-control systems (biomedical research, logging-mill automation, etc.). As such, most of it required the computer to deal correctly with real-world eccentricities.
That’s hard to fully automate! A frustrated monkey test subject did something to the setup we were “sure” he couldn’t do. Log bark partly covered our log-“viewing” unit. An inebriated de-barker operator slammed his new log into the current one, upending both and wiping our vision unit off of the ceiling, 20 feet overhead.
So what about even “simple” problems for self-driving vehicles? What happens when bug splatter discombobulates the vision unit? Or kicked-up gravel clobbers it? Ever drive down I-5, or through the Central Valley or other rich farmland—rich with produce, bugs and gravel? Ever see a car with a burned-out headlight or taillight? Heard about the car GPS systems that had erroneous routing information? Railways have been around much longer than horseless carriages, have completely limited routes and pervasive regulation and controls, but still have regular demolitions of both freight and passenger trains.
Seems like the only way we will ever have autonomous vehicles on our public roadways is if the Big Vehicles cartel does what the nuclear power cartel did: get Congress to limit its corporate liability for any problems.
Jim Warren, MS ’77
At one point in the article, the question is asked, “What if the car makes a bad decision and hits a pedestrian?” Well, we are there yet. On March 18, a woman in Tempe, Ariz., was hit and killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle. Chris Gerdes rightly notes that “you can’t program for everything.” As a result, manufacturers have to decide when the vehicle is “safe enough” for production, and governments, following established regulations, must decide if the car may be sold to the public. How many injuries or fatalities are acceptable?
As a mid-career software engineer, I wrote test software for the alarm system for a power plant nuclear reactor; the test software was easily 10 times the amount of software that was under test. It should be remembered that the simulation systems that are being used to test autonomous vehicles are themselves complex, and are composed of software that may have bugs that prevent the detection of bugs in the software under test.
While software systems are becoming more complex, the dictates of time-to-market are becoming ever more urgent. The article lists at least seven large automobile groups working with Stanford, but it is unclear who will own the results of research and development. How much will manufacturers be determining when design elements are to be incorporated in autonomous vehicles?
Philip Tone, ’75
San Diego, California
Since Stanford is a university, not a pre-IPO start-up, one would hope its faculty would say things that were, if not true, at least not ridiculous. Alas, on page 48 of your March issue, Chris Gerdes, a founder of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, says, “Lack of transportation is the single biggest barrier to climbing out of poverty.”
That the importance of location and transportation for poverty has been the subject of serious research, reaching decidedly mixed conclusions, is beside the point. Even a moment’s thought suggests other, far more plausible candidates for obstacles to eliminating poverty, even in the United States: lack of adequate well-paying jobs, Federal Reserve policy that has kept unemployment high to fight inflation, discrimination, poor education, drugs, violence, the stingiest welfare state in the developed world. . . .
This “technology will solve our problems” attitude may delight those who hold it, but it obscures the actual political, social and economic problems we need to solve.
Ross Boylan, PhD ’88
San Francisco, California
I thought the image of Stephen Zoepf in his bike shoes and shorts, discussing autonomous vehicles in the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, was a perfect metaphor for the cognitive dissonance prevalent in the car technology world of today. This world—centered on the three revolutions of vehicle autonomy, electrification and sharing—is essentially aimed at delivering more miles of travel at higher speeds to more people. This is a combination guaranteed to move society further out of balance with the planet’s ecosystem. So I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read that Dr. Zoepf “says his goal is to make transportation ‘truly sustainable.’” Assuming he is referencing the future state of the planet, this statement reflects a common outward stance taken by car technologists. They must find some way, however weak and unsubstantiated, to claim they are on the side of the planet, even as their work (literally) drives society toward greater demand for distance, speed and fuel consumption.
John Mulrow, ’08
Although the article does touch thoughtfully on the social and economic questions this pending “revolution” raises, I would suggest that it underestimates the profound influences that both social preferences and economic values are likely to have on the implementation of the vision these researchers are developing.
When I was growing up, owning (and driving) my own car was the ultimate expression of independence and freedom. While individual values may be changing somewhat, the economic drivers (buy this product and you will be free, masculine, independent) are arguably even more intense in their impact on the younger generation.
Although the cultural values of many in the high-tech world surrounding this research are reasonably open and broad-minded, the business models of most high-tech companies depend on quite opposite values. Gather the information. Sell it to the highest bidder. Likewise, those pushing these developments (Uber, for example) are those who stand to make a substantial profit from it.
I trust that in the Stanford community there are those who are raising these cultural and economic questions as well as those you describe who are envisioning an ideal future and the technology needed to get there. Until the whole culture makes a dramatic shift, I suspect driverless cars will be a development by and for those who can afford it or can profit from it. I do hope I’m at least partly mistaken.
Alan Jones, ’60, MA ’63
Mill Valley, California
I was dismayed at the lack of any in-depth discussion of the urban design implications (or lack thereof).
Yes, it’s a good thing that as vehicles are used more efficiently, substantial areas now devoted to parking and traffic lanes will be available for open space. But as populations grow and become wealthier, private car usage becomes easier and more accessible, and energy supplies fail to adequately keep up with either, transportation technology should not be directing us toward increased urban sprawl and decentralization. Instead, technology companies should be working with urban planners and designers on strategies to integrate autonomous car networks with fixed-route mass transit. The latter may be badly in need of “disruption” itself, including further automation, but significant amounts of transit infrastructure already exist that can be adapted, and transit serves the high percentage of people who travel along the same small subset of routes.
As a landscape architect who as a Stanford undergrad had to fight an uphill battle to test the waters of that profession, I’m not surprised that the built environment isn’t an important factor in this particular conversation on campus. But I challenge the university to give it some of the thought it deserves.
Darren Sears, ’00
San Francisco, California
While the self-driving car might be just the thing for getting from a Vegas hotel on the Strip to downtown Vegas, for the rest of us, out here in the real world, maybe it’s not so good.
A couple of recent examples:
• I’m a couple hundred yards down a winding street when I come to a long line of cars. Rather than sit there for who knows how long, I quickly turn into a driveway, make a U-turn, and go back up the hill to the next cross street so that I can continue to my destination. Can the self-driving car manage this? And do it before another car arrives behind me?
• The address of a friend’s condo complex is on a major boulevard. But his unit is actually two blocks away, on another street. I found it the first time by looking for it. Can the car do that?
My point is simple: Either the car is competent or it’s not. Otherwise, it’s like letting your teenage kid take the wheel. You have to be totally alert at all times, and ready to take over on a moment’s notice. And it doesn’t stop there.
The article cites unsupported predictions by RethinkX, according to which car ownership will drop to a small fraction of the population. Let’s see how that might work.
• My surfboard and my wetsuit live in the back of my van. In many parts of America, you will find gun racks and hunting equipment being the add-ons of choice. And don’t forget racks for skis, surfboards, kayaks and bicycles, or trailer hitches for boats, Jet Skis, snowmobiles and camp trailers. The stuff goes with the vehicle, 24/7. And that requires ownership.
• Millions of Americans work at jobs that require a pickup truck or van. They usually have the tools of their trade locked in their vehicle. Again, so much for not owning a vehicle.
• Finally, thousands of Americans live in cars, trucks or campers because they can’t afford a house or an apartment. This includes many who work in Silicon Valley—perhaps even employed by some of those who are proclaiming the end of car ownership.
People cited in the article mention the notion that people value their cars as symbols. But in typical elitist style, they ignore the countless more pressing reasons that cause ordinary people to own and drive their own vehicles.
As one who is already experiencing some limiting physical issues, I know that someday I may be unable to drive. And I fully understand that the seriously handicapped (which at some point might include me) will find self-driving cars to be a godsend (if they can afford them). However, it’s quite a stretch to jump from there to a nation in which almost no one drives or owns a car.
David Rearwin, PhD ’73
La Jolla, California
I find the cross-pollination among departments at Stanford heartening, reminding me of my 1969 class Engineering 235: An Interdisciplinary Study in Systems Engineering. But I am truly thankful that I won’t be around for this “explosive transformation”; I’m a motorhead with a garage-full of “driver cars” and a barn-full of “driver tractors,” all of which I enjoy to the utmost!
Maury Bunn, MS ’70
It’s all about joy. If the future depicted in the article comes true, then I feel sad for my grandchildren. Didn’t we learn anything from Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds?
I can see the benefit in systems that support the driver. As a kid, I rode with my family through the mountains of Colorado, standing on the seat, singing and clapping my hands. Seat belts and disc brakes have made driving safer, but systems that take over have not worked. Why? Because they suck the joy out of life. Don’t believe it? Then why are there traffic jams into the city when there is a perfectly good train right next to the highway? How many people were smiling last time you rode the bus? And that trip to Yosemite where you sit and listen to an audio tour? No joy there. Why not just play “Yosemite,” the virtual reality video game?
Pat Bremkamp, MBA ’74
Compassion and Competition
“Chief Kindness Officers” (March) talked about a course on compassion and leadership at the Graduate School of Business.
I am very impressed with changes in the business school curriculum to include classes that explore the links among mindfulness, productivity and leadership, rather than merely numbers, profits and a get-ahead mentality.
These ideas and classes are long overdue. I would add that the classes should include discussions about the idea of “competition,” a bedrock of our culture and economy, but a notion that always produces more losers than winners.
James E. Babbitt, ’71
An article in the March issue posed the question, “Who Winds the Clock?”
I enjoyed your article about the myriad volunteers who have restored the clock tower to its proper role. During my days on the Farm, we noted the top of the hour and start of our next class by the chaotic snarl of bikes that converged on the intersection in the clock tower’s shadow. The clock itself was frustratingly erratic, if it was operating at all. This schizophrenia was memorialized in a song from the Big Game Gaieties of 1993: “Post Office lines are getting longer/The Clocktower’s time is getting wronger/Our mascot is a tree/We need a hero. . . .” Thanks to all the heroes who keep it functioning. I look forward to enjoying that missing piece of my Stanford experience on a future visit.
John Lucero, ’95
Colorado Springs, Colorado
In his March column, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne talked about how to address the public’s concerns with the value of higher education.
I was pleased to see that Stanford’s president is aware of the decline in the perceived value to society of universities in general. He identifies a number of possible causes of the decline and points out how Stanford is addressing them, including “fostering curiosity and free expression.” I believe that he has touched on the principal cause of the decline in perceived value, which is the failure of universities to fulfill their core mission of teaching students to listen to, and think critically about, a wide variety of viewpoints. The recent incidents of intolerance of others’ ideas at universities, and the documented uniformity of the political views of their faculties, have convinced many that universities now teach students what to think, not how to think. If Stanford wants to stand out from this unfortunate crowd, it will demonstrate intellectual and political diversity in its faculty.
Frank Cable, ’64
Lake Oswego, Oregon
No Love Lost
An article in the March issue looked at two Stanford juniors’ algorithmic pairing of potential “backup spouses” (in case traditional romance didn’t work out), a project for an econ course.
Look back to fall 1959 and Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer’s “Happy Families Planning Service” date-matching program, the first known experiment on romantic matching with computer use.
This fun, Stanford-originated experiment with 49 couples was written about at length in the Stanford Historical Society magazine in 2002 and later covered by the New York Times. Fialer, ’60, passed away four years ago, but Harvey, ’58, is alive and well in Menlo Park.
Stew Gillmor, ’60
The March issue included a profile of biology professor Gretchen Daily, whose work sheds light on the services nature provides to humans and the economic value of conservation.
The article states, “People often name top-of-mind issues such as jobs, health care and good schools as higher priorities than environmental protection, researchers and pollsters have found.” If we don’t have a happy, healthy environment, how can we expect the people who live on this planet to be happy, healthy and productive beings? Every individual, every animal, every element of creation has a specific role to play in the well-being and harmony of the universe.
The cover story of the September 2017 issue, “What It Was Like to Be an African-American Freshman in 1962,” mischaracterized the relationship of one of the seven African-American students in the 1962 freshman class with Stanford. Helen Marsh, ’66, who was not named in the story but referred to as one of two students who declined to be interviewed, did not, as the article stated, “shun Stanford.” Ms. Marsh could not be reached by the reporter but did not decline the interview, and she has remained connected to the university. In 2016, she participated on the class panel at her 50th reunion.
The following did not appear in the print version of Stanford.
More on Cars
Additional reader responses to “In Two Years, There Could Be 10 Million Self-Driving Cars on the Road” (March).
Based on my interpretation of news reports, the three recent fatal accidents with automated cars demonstrate a disturbing tendency to “hit and run.” In the Tesla/semi-truck collision, the car and the driver were decapitated when the Tesla did not “see” the truck’s trailer cross in front of it. After the collision, the Tesla continued down the road until it crashed. In the Uber Volvo/pedestrian-bicycle collision, the Volvo continued at speed until the driver/monitor became aware of the collision and then applied the brakes. In the Tesla/traffic barrier accident, the Tesla did not detect the presence of the barrier, did not slow before the collision and probably would have continued to drive automatically if it had not been destroyed.
Perhaps someone should be taking a closer look at the ethics and fail-safe design of autonomous driving machines before we populate the roads with cars that cannot detect semi-truck trailers, bicycles, traffic barriers or collisions with same.
Martin Hammond, PhD ’65
Thanks for a thorough review of the issue. My hope and prayer is that the new vehicles, eventually, will be freer of failures and bleeps and (literal) crashes than our current array of computers, tablets, phones, etc. Else, a curse on it all.
Raymond Cormier, MA ’62
Boynton Beach, Florida
The article suggests that innovation determines the future, a unidirectional, timebound phenomenon.
It assumes that we don't have a choice. Innovation happens. So does the loss of human autonomy. The assumption is that driverless cars rob people of decision-making, but engineers will design the cars and build in their decisions. Thus, the decision-making will be taken over by a tiny class of people, a new elite dubbed “engineering ethics” personnel. Is it ethical to concentrate coercive power in an elite few? “Cars reflect their owners, ” the article says, as a “symbol of freedom.” Symbols are powerful, as Jason Millar observes. “It will be difficult to force people to give up their cars.” In fact, humanity is defined by its symbol-making capacity, so it may actually be destructive to coerce innovation.
Who is doing the forcing? How can this innovation process be democratized? How can a referendum on the symbol of freedom and independence be conducted? Who decides that a complete transformation to driverless transport is inevitable?
I think I found the answer in the article for the drive (oops!) to coerce this innovation: It seems like driverless cars contain data-gathering power. That information can be sold to commercial interests, which then can use it to direct our decisions in other directions. This is insidious.
What the article shows me is that power over freedom and independence, decision-making, is the final step in the road ahead to a Bradburyan universe. (Please reread Fahrenheit 451. It is the greatest literary gift of the 20th century to the 21st.)
Information technology should not be coerced upon a population, nor should it mine data for further coercion. A more diverse world is a freer world. Let the innovation freaks have their driverless toys. I love my car, and I love my freedom and its symbols. Innovation is a one-way street only if we do not freely travel other pathways simultaneously.
Jean E. Rosenfeld, ’61
The car will remain the personal status symbol for rich and poor alike, although it will be autonomous and electric. Appearing at the neighbors’ barbecue or the country club in anything but one’s own car of the proper status for the occasion would be admitting social failure, and a resort trip would be unthinkable in a shared car.
Carlin Black, ’62, MBA ’66
San Jose, California
Letters on Letters
Readers responded to letters in the March issue.
I must reinforce two letters from Gary Cavalli and Bob Murphy’s children.
I read the Murph article, got to the end, and said to myself, “Is that it?” I quickly perused the rest of the magazine looking for the next Murph article and was disappointed. Frequently people get more ink for esoteric inventions or thoughts. I consider Murph “Stanford Athletics” and he certainly deserved more than what Stanford gave him.
Tom Flood, ’66
I commend the diversity of letters you included with opinions about Senator Feinstein, with the exception of the nasty six-line diatribe from Doug Reid. The magazine should be a place for respectful, civil discourse, not perpetrating the ugly tone that has swept our politics across the nation. Giving him air time, when there were plenty of critical but decent letters, only empowers people like him, giving them the stage they seek to spread their poison.
Kathy Merchant, ’63
A Professor Responds
“From Controversy to Cure” (July/August) told the story of physician-journalist Meredith Wadman, ’82, and her recent book The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease.
I am the “once-vilified Stanford professor” pejoratively described by the anonymous writer of the story about The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman. Because I was “once-vilified” (with no evidence provided by the writer) I assume that I am now rehabilitated by the same writer.
By providing only Wadman’s opinion, and not the facts, the writer’s statement is incomplete that I resigned from Stanford because of Wadman’s belief of a dispute about ownership of a cell strain that I invented (WI-38). I resigned to protest the decision by the dean to accept the opinion of a National Institutes of Health accountant that I sold WI-38 and then, without knowing my response, he and his attorney immediately suggested that I retain a lawyer. This polarizing action negated a collegial discussion about the complexities of intellectual property rights and title to a self-duplicating biological system. Intellectual property rights were then a unique issue for biologists and title to a self-duplicating cell system has, even to this day, remained unsettled in law. My subsequent suit against the NIH/Food and Drug Administration/Department of Health, Education, and Welfare resulted in a settlement that did not award title to WI-38 to the government as the dean and his attorney had believed. My second reason for resigning was to protest that I had been denied due process.
San Francisco, California