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When Robots Kill

This is not a breaking-news blog. Instead, what I try to do here is bring together different strands of thinking about an issue – hence the name: Find The Thread.

This is why I’m going to comment on the tragic story of the woman struck and killed by a “self-driving" Uber car in Arizona, even though the collision occurred more than a week ago.

A Question Of Levels

We generally talk about levels of autonomy in driverless cars. Level 0 is the sort of car most of us are used to. Particularly high-tech cars – your Mercedes S-classes, Audi A8s, many Volvos, and so on – may have Level 1 or even 2 systems: radar cruise control that will decelerate to avoid obstacles, lane-keeping technology that will steer between the white lines on a motorway, and so on. Tesla also attempts Level 3 with its Autopilot tech.

In all of these cases, the driver is required to still be present and alert, ready to take over the driving at a moment’s notice. The goal is to get to Level 4 and 5, which is where the driver can actually let go of the wheel entirely. Once Level 5 is commonplace, we will start seeing cars built without manual controls, as they will no longer be required.

The problem, as Benedict Evans points out, is that this will not be a universal roll-out. As I have written myself, autonomous driving technology is likely to be rolled out gradually, with easy use cases such as highway driving coming first.

This is the nut of the issue, though: as long as human drivers are required as backup to self-driving tech that works most of the time, we are actually worse off than if we did not have this tech at all.

In the first known fatal accident involving self-driving tech, the driver may have ignored up to seven warnings to put his hands back on the wheel. That was an extreme case, with rumours that the driver may even have been watching a film on a laptop, but in the Arizona case, the driver may have had only between four and one seconds of warning. If you’re texting or even carrying on a conversation with other occupants of the car, four seconds to context-switch back to driving and re-acquire situational awareness is not a lot. One second? Forget it.

In tech circles, self-driving tech is mostly analysed as a technology problem. Can we do this with cameras and smarter processing, do we need expensive Lidar rigs, who has the smartest approach, and so on. This is all cutting-edge stuff, to be sure, and well worth investigating anyway. You can then start speculating about the consequences if this tech all works out, and I’ve had a go at thinking about what truly self-driving cars may imply myself.

Beyond The Software

There is a whole other level beyond the technological one, which is the real-world frameworks in which these technologies would have to operate. The sorts of driving licenses we issue to humans already focus more on the rules of the road than the techniques of driving. You can learn the mechanics of driving in a few hours, especially with an automatic gearbox. The reason we don’t give people licenses after a day of instruction is that we also require them to understand how to drive on public roads shared with others.

This tragic accident in Arizona has shifted the conversation to whether it is possible to sue an autonomous car. I am working with some major automotive manufacturers, and all are developing self-driving tech – but none are prepared to roll it out, or even discuss it much in public, until these aspects have been sorted out. Car-makers are a fairly conservative bunch, used to strict product liability laws.

In contrast, the software industry by and large accepts the idea that a click-through waiver absolves you of all responsibility for your products. That is not at all how the automobile industry operates. Even strictly software faults are held to a level of scrutiny unknown in the general software industry, outside of specialised applications. In the case of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems, the car-maker was ultimately held responsible in court for a fatal accident, due to identified bugs in its electronic throttle control system – and to the fact that code metrics indicated the probability that other, as-yet unidentified bugs were still present in the codebase for that system.

Jamie Zawinski has some typically acerbic commentary:

Note that the article's headline referred to the woman killed by the robot as a "pedestrian" instead of a person. "Pedestrian" is a propaganda term invented by the auto industry to re-frame the debate: to get you to preemptively agree that roads, and by extension cities, are for cars, and any non-car-based use is “other", is some kind of special-case interloper. See The Invention of Jaywalking.

Semantics aside, I have one question that I think is pretty important here, and that is, who is getting charged with vehicular homicide? Even if they are ultimately ruled to be not at fault, what name goes on the court docket? Is it:

  • The Uber employee - or "non-employee independent contractor" - in the passenger seat?

  • Their shift lead?

  • Travis Kalanick?

  • The author(s) of the (proprietary, un-auditable) software?

  • The "corporate person" known as Uber?

Good question, and one that so far remains unanswered.

Why The Rush To Autonomous Cars?

Finally, let’s remember that there are two reasons that the industry is storming ahead with self-driving tech. The public reason is the presumption of increased road safety through the removal of distracted human drivers from the road. However, as the complexities involved in moving beyond simple demos in an empty parking lot become clear, people are starting to suggest ridiculous solutions like "bicycle-to-vehicle" communications – in other words, instrumenting cyclists so that they will advertise their position to cars. And if you give sensors to cyclists, why not pedestrians too?

This is a typical technology-first fix: if you can’t solve the problem one way, by detecting cyclists through sensors, you solve it another way, by fitting sensors to the cyclists themselves. Here again, though, we are not in a purely technological domain. This blinkered view is why self-driving cars won’t save cyclists, at least until the thinking shifts around the whole issue of cars in general.

Here is where we come to the second reason behind the urgency in the development of self-driving tech: Uber’s business model depends on it. Right now they are haemorrhaging money – over a billion-with-a-B per quarter in 2017 – in a race to achieve market dominance before they run out of cash (or investors willing to give them more). Much of that cost goes to their human drivers; if those could be replaced with automated systems, the cost would go away at a stroke, and they would also achieve much higher utilisation rates on their fleet of vehicles.

In this view, self-driving cars are both an offensive move against Uber’s competitors, and a defensive one in case the likes of Google get there first and undercut Uber with their little pod-cars.

This sort of thing is catnip for futurists and other professional speculators, existing at the nexus of technology and business model that is Silicon Valley distilled to its purest essence. However, as the real-world problems with this project become more and more visible, people are starting to question whether self-driving cars are actually a distraction for Uber.

The bottom line is that right now we are pushing forwards with self-driving tech in the hope it will make our roads safer. This is a valid and important goal, to be sure – but those claims of increased safety from self-driving tech are still assumptions, very much unproven, as the tragic death in Arizona reminds us.

Along the way to full Level 5 autonomy, we must pass through an “uncanny valley" of partial autonomy, which is actually more dangerous than no autonomy at all.

Adding the desperate urgency of a company whose very survival depends on the success of this research seems like a very bad idea on the surface of it. It is all too easy to imagine Uber (or any other company, but right now it’s Uber), with only a quarter or two worth of cash in the bank, deciding to rush out self-driving tech that is 1.0 at best.

It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?

Would you cross the street in front of one?

And shouldn’t you have the choice to make that call? This is why, despite claims that the EU’s strategy on AI is a failure, I like their go-slow approach. Sure, roll out 1.0 animoji or cat-ear filters, but before we rely on computer vision not to run people over, or fine them for jaywalking or whatever, we should maybe stop and think about that for a moment.

Surprise: Uber, Lyft Actually Increase Traffic

A big part of the promise of the "ride-sharing" companies was that they would reduce congestion by increasing utilisation of cars. Of course, this idea of vehicles in near-constant use for a sequence of rides was hardly a great innovation, being previously known as a taxi, but there you are. However, now it turns out that Uber et al might actually be increasing congestion:

One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.

I am glad that at least the description for these services has switched from ride-sharing to ride-hailing. As I have written before, Uber is nothing to do with sharing:

It is of a part with other examples of "sharing economy" (scare quotes very much intended). Very little of Airbnb is people renting out their spare rooms; much of it is people renting out stables of properties, purchased for the explicit purpose of renting them out through Airbnb. There are even companies like Airsorted that will take care of the whole process, letting landlords sit back and take in the proceeds - while conveniently forgetting to pay taxes on their earnings.
This is not "sharing" economy; these are fully professionalised marketplaces. The real sharing economy equivalents are BlaBlaCar or Couchsurfing. These offerings really do enable non-professionals to share something.

The article is fairly reasonable and balanced, if hardly ground-breaking. CityLab has been covering Uber’s unsustainable impact on traffic for a while now.

What I found really disingenuous was the last paragraph of the AP piece:

At least one study did not pin increased congestion on hailing services. Seattle-based firm Inrix scoured data from 2012 to 2015 in London and found the number of passenger vehicles, including Uber cars, remained the same or even dipped slightly. Reasons for increased congestion included a surge in road construction and delivery trucks dropping off online purchases.

This misses the point entirely. The whole premise according to which Uber et al were going to reduce congestion was that, by increasing utilisation (trips per vehicle), they would reduce the number of cars needed for those trips, and therefore the need for parking spaces and so on and so forth. If the number of vehicles remains the same, but utilisation is way up (Uber drivers gotta eat!), congestion will certainly increase!

It’s the same effect as those online purchases being delivered: instead of being chunked into a small number of large deliveries to shops, all those packages are being dropped off one by one at people’s homes, and probably by different delivery companies too. It’s more convenient for shoppers, sure – but it is not more efficient.

Anyway, I have to wrap this up and go get on the Metro, which is still the best way to get around.

See you underground!

Image by Hanny Naibaho via Unsplash

Water Wet

Well, the EU has come out and said what we all knew already: Uber is a taxi firm, not a tech firm.

This is of a place with the decision by Transport for London to revoke Uber’s license to operate, which is currently under appeal. There are a few important things to say about the EU result in particular.

Love Uber, Hate Uber

First of all, there is a distinction to be made between Uber the service and Uber the company. The service is incredibly convenient, and has in many ways completely superseded traditional taxi services, especially when travelling. Instead of a myriad of taxi firm numbers for each city that I visit regularly, and the requirement upon arrival to make sure I have enough local currency to get wherever I need to go, I can just whip out my phone as soon as I’ve cleared customs, and usually arrive at the meeting spot around the same time as the car.

When I reach the destination, I simply get out of the car and walk away, and my receipt is emailed to me automatically. This is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a taxi service.

Uber the company - well, that is a different story. From untold counts of sexual harassment (which are now to be made into a movie), to active evasion of regulators in the Greyball programme, to the actual matter of this case - claiming that their drivers are "independent contractors", rather than employees - this is not a company that anyone should support.

Let’s Get Some Perspective

Sure, capitalism is always pretty red in tooth and claw, and the various regulators that Uber has been doing battle with have hardly covered themselves in glory over the years. The taxi drivers trying to present themselves as innocents who have been hard done by could have implemented something similar to Uber years ago, but preferred to continue operating vehicles that were hazards to safety and hygiene, claim that the credit card machine was perennially out of order, refuse to provide tax receipts, and offer to fill in vastly inflated amounts on an expense slip as compensation.

There is also an argument that Uber increased provision of transportation services in previously under-served areas, and even provide a cheaper way to get to hospital than an ambulance1.

All of this is true, but we cannot overlook how these results were achieved.

Remember, too, that what we have seen until now is Nice Uber. This is Uber still operating in a mode where they are willing to burn their investors’ capital to capture market share, funding up to 40% of the cost of a ride. Assuming that they are successful in capturing a monopoly, that subsidy would presumably end shortly afterwards, and in order to keep fees to riders down, the payment to drivers would surely take a hit. Nasty Uber looking to monetise its monopoly and cut its stupendous losses ($2.8B last year alone) would surely start cutting corners elsewhere, too.

The Code Of Law Is Not A Code To Be Broken

This ruling brings to light once more a common tech fallacy. The tech world runs on codes. Success can be had by operating precisely within the codes, or by finding ingenious loopholes that let you do something unexpected. Confusion sometimes occurs because the law is also a code. Some techies misinterpret the code of law as being similar to the codes and specifications that they are used to, and think that they have identified a cunning loophole that nobody else has thought about and which allows them to route around some provision of law that they do not like. For instance, they might decide to start a taxi firm, except - aha! - the drivers are not employees, but "independent contractors" who operate their own vehicles (which are in turn leased from the totally-not-their-employer taxi firm). And the best part is, it all follows the letter of the law!

The thing is, computer code is not at all the same as a code of law. It is true that regulation moves slowly and can become outdated, and there is significant abuse because of that. In Italy, for instance, the German low-cost bus booking app Flixbus is in trouble with the law (link in Italian) because incumbents have managed to get laws proposed that would ban bus companies from operating unless they own their vehicles. That requirement is obviously a problem for Flixbus, a booking platform that aggregates across multiple bus operating companies, but does not actually run any buses itself.

This is precisely the sort of situation that the "app economy" is supposed to disrupt: instead of a Balkanised patchwork of bus companies, have a single multinational app platform through which passengers can book trips in more comfort - although perhaps at the expense of a comfortable status quo for incumbent local bus operators.

This is how Uber would like to present itself too - as plucky David taking on established Goliath, or as an underdog going up against The Man, who is also hand in hand with City Hall. However, there is a fine line between opposing laws and regulations, and working actively to evade them. In the latter situation, once the law does catch up, it will shut down whatever loopholes were being used, and then the consequences are far more grave than if a technical loophole were closed through a software update. Not only does the cunning hack to the law code no longer work, but the would-be law hacker may now find themselves subject to penalties far more draconian than for violating the GPL.

Welcome To Europe

Lately American firms have been unpleasantly surprised to find that the EU’s bark does in fact have a bite behind it. They had generally ignored the EU as being toothless and slow-moving, but activists and politicians have goaded the behemoth into motion, and the $2.4 billion fine against Google was only the start. Margrethe Vestrager, the current European Commissioner for Competition, is outspoken and determined to enforce a particularly European vision of competition. Given that Neelie Kroes is now on Uber’s Public Policy Advisory Board, perhaps this is a sign that Uber’s leadership recognise this fact, and will move with more tact from now on.

I Come Not To Bury Uber

It is true that getting a taxi used to be a hassle and now it’s mostly not, and that fact is largely thanks to Uber - but we cannot simply accept Uber's culture of "ask for forgiveness rather than permission - in fact, forget forgiveness, we’ve done it and that’s that". I hope the service can continue while the company is reformed under new leadership, but that will have to be done without this figleaf that Uber is a technology firm or part of the sharing economy or whatever. It’s a taxi firm, it owns vehicles and employs drivers, and it had better apply its substantial and undoubted ingenuity to working out what that means.

Photos by Peter Kasprzyk and Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

  1. As a European, this story has any amount of WTF to it. Sorry, America, but your healthcare industry is utterly bananas, and you need to fix it. Single-payer systems have their flaws too, but they absolutely beat the alternative. 

New Economy, Meet Old Continent

In the latest setback for Uber, an advocate at the ECJ argued that:

Uber should be considered a transport service. But even if it wasn’t, he still thinks the French law at issue didn’t have to be notified to the EU, because it affects digital services "only in an incidental manner"

Uber has always argued that it is primarily an app facilitating connections between users and independent service providers - who are certainly not employees, no sir, and therefore not owed health insurance, pensions, or indeed much of anything.

Given that the supposedly independent service providers are often full-time drivers, and that the car itself is also often leased from Uber, this claim was always somewhat disingenuous. It is of a part with other examples of "sharing economy" (scare quotes very much intended). Very little of Airbnb is people renting out their spare rooms; much of it is people renting out stables of properties, purchased for the explicit purpose of renting them out through Airbnb. There are even companies like Airsorted that will take care of the whole process, letting landlords sit back and take in the proceeds - while conveniently forgetting to pay taxes on their earnings.

This is not "sharing" economy; these are fully professionalised marketplaces. The real sharing economy equivalents are BlaBlaCar or Couchsurfing. These offerings really do enable non-professionals to share something.

I love the services offered by both Uber and Airbnb, and they both filled gaps in their respective markets. Before Uber, getting around a strange city was an exercise in frustration, dealing with unfamiliar currencies, unpredictable waits and routes, and general uncertainty and unpleasantness. Now, I can summon a car to my location and pay through my phone, without any worry about whether I have enough local currency or whatever.

In the same way, I booked my entire summer holiday (except for two nights) via Airbnb. Travelling with two kids is an exercise in expensive frustration, if you are looking at standard hotels. Most places will let you put one cot or foldaway bed in a double room, but when you are travelling with two kids, they want you to book two rooms or bump you up to an expensive suite. Airbnb is a lifesaver, giving a huge supply of inexpensive accommodation for larger groups, all easily accessible and searchable in one location.

If these new services are to have a future, though, they have to comply with laws and regulations, including new rules that might be needed for these new centralised platforms. The EU defining them as full services that are mediated by apps, rather than simple apps with no responsibilities, is an important step in that process.