Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2301st Meeting

President John Ingersoll called the 2,301st meeting to order at 8:18 pm May 11, 2012 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Mr. Ingersoll announced the order of business and introduced six new members of the Society, including the speaker of the evening.

The minutes of the 2,300th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Ingersoll then introduced the speaker, Mr. Brad Templeton of Singularity University. Mr. Templeton spoke on "RoboCars and Their Remarkable Implications."

Mr. Templeton believes that cars able to drive themselves, or "robocars", will change the world. As an example, he noted that human drivers are involved in an average of twelve million accidents with thirty-four thousand associated fatalities every year, more deaths than many major diseases and with a majority attributed to human error. Cars driven by computers that do not suffer from inebriation or inattention could potentially save many lives.

Mr. Templeton explained that the public has long considered robocars to be science fiction, involving a difficult and unsolved problem in artificial intelligence, but that reality is arriving sooner than most people think. It is only necessary to construct a car with the equivalent intelligence of an insect or a horse, which does not necessarily "think" about driving as a human would. Multiple major car manufacturers have announced robocar features for current and upcoming models, such as slow autopilot for traffic jams, parallel parking assistance, lane keeping, automatic cruise control, and collision warning systems.

These features arise partly from research done to develop self-driving cars for contests sponsored by DARPA that involved a one hundred and fifty mile long desert racecourse, Mr. Templeton said. Google used the winning technologies of these contests to build a vehicle designed to navigate city streets, utilizing LIDAR, RADAR, GPS, cameras, a precision odometer, and other sensors. This combination of technologies enables the robocar to observe its surroundings constantly, allowing it to navigate busy city streets with pedestrians, pause for crosswalks, merge onto highways, pass through toll booths, and even drive down Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Mr. Templeton then played a video of a test subject who is legally blind and making use of a prototype robocar, explaining how beneficial this technology could be to a number of people that are losing their mobility to diseases or old age. He described a possible future where the optimal vehicle for your desired trip could be summoned with a cellphone, enabling people to rent only the vehicle they need on demand instead of purchasing a less efficient vehicle that would meet all potential future needs. Ubiquitous, small, efficient electric vehicles could be significantly greener than most existing public transit systems, which go unused outside of peak times, he said.

Mr. Templeton explained that the public has been wary of electric cars primarily due to battery cost, range, and recharge time, but that robocars would enable electric and alternative fuel cars to become a marketing problem instead of a technical one. A transition to primarily electric cars could one day save millions tons of CO2 and help minimize overseas oil imports. Features such as dynamic reparking along crowded streets, automatic renavigation around congestion, and more consistent traffic flow due to fewer accidents could increase the nation's road capacity without needing to construct additional roads, he said.

Mr. Templeton noted that an availability of robocars may also unfortunately lead to less walking or longer average trips, perhaps even increasing the degree of sprawl near cities. Other potential concerns include sourcing the electricity for electric robocars, onboard computer security and bugs, and the disruption to industries such as taxis, he said. Mr. Templeton is also concerned about privacy issues, the data collected by robocar sensors, the freedom to modify and extend car systems, and how law enforcement will interact with or potentially control the new automated systems.

Mr. Templeton has observed that both state and federal governments have embraced the robocar technology and noted that Nevada recently passed legislation allowing robocars on public roads with several other states considering similar proposals. The merging of computer technology with the relatively unchanged process of driving allows for rapid development and competing innovation between companies and municipalities. Mr. Templeton believes that many will benefit from robocar technology, including the elderly and the disabled, and that few other current areas of research offer so much to society in return for the necessary investment.

With that, he closed his talk and Mr. Ingersoll invited questions.

Someone wondered how beneficial communication between robocars would be for traffic coordination. Mr. Templeton explained that there would need to be a critical number of robocars already on the road for them to benefit from such a feature so he considers inter-car communication to be less exciting than other research with more immediate applications.

Another question concerned the possible utility of active navigation aids added to roads and roadsigns. Mr. Templeton worried that this would lead to robocars dependent on slow-changing infrastructure rather than faster innovation at the car navigation system level.

After the question and answer period, Mr. Ingersoll thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to apply for membership. At 10:01 pm, President John Ingersoll adjourned the 2,301st meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 80
The weather: Clear
The temperature: 21°C

Respectfully submitted,

Justin Stimatze,
Recording secretary

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