Arriving now: your self-driving car

In technology, big breakthroughs always seem to take longer than we assume. There’s an amusing recursive “law” that describes this phenomenon, Hofstadter’s Law, which states: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Hofstadter’s Law is a wry way of saying that the time it takes to solve super complex problems — even factoring in extra time because they’re super complex — is fiendishly difficult to calculate. Let’s take self-driving cars, for instance. That’s a technical problem of enormous magnitude which involves weaving together mechanical and digital systems of breathtaking sophistication. And then you’ve got to make the whole thing work — without harming anyone — within a crazy quilt framework of federal, state and laws.

A fully autonomous car sounds like something we’ll get in the latter half of the century. And yet, it’s increasingly likely that we’re only a few years away.

One of the more interesting stories of the past week was that the Ford Motor Company announced a partnership with Lyft to bring autonomous cars to consumers in 2021. Ford, the second-largest car manufacturer in the U.S., is the latest to join a growing list of auto makers and smart-car systems developers that have agreed to participate in Lyft’s Open Platform Initiative. That’s already a thing — Lyft provides APIs, dispatching, network connectivity, and all the trimmings the self-driving car industry needs to rapidly test and deploy its technology.

Of course, some pundits suspect the smart car is further out than it looks. McKinsey & Co., notably, offers a more skeptical, Hofstadter-like estimate, and says truly autonomous cars “could be more than a decade away.” Ethical issues need to be resolved — when a child chases a ball into the street and the driver must choose between running it over or swerving into an oncoming school bus, what’s the right call? Presumably, the car’s algorithms will need to make that choice. (Good expatiation in The Atlantic, here, and why this might be a straw-man argument, here.)

Self-driving cars are still being debugged (this Brookings Institution report on the April 2016 Tesla crash is worth a scan). Once they arrive in force they’ll displace professional drivers. And even if, within the next few years, suddenly a swarm of cheap, take-you-anywhere electric Lyfts and Ubers are at your command, The Verge asks a reasonable question: What do you do with that obsolete, costly, piece of gasoline-powered junk in your driveway?

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