Tuesday, July 30, 2013

5 Reasons Self-driving Cars Should Be Tested in Arizona

Full disclosure: I want a self-driving car.  And yes, I live in Arizona.  Phoenix, specifically, which is all the more reason to read this post.

My bias aside, I'd like to spend some time making the case for why Arizona should be the test site of the eminent self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles. Many of these reasons make up why I love living here, and why I would be terrified to move to somewhere like California.  

What's more, if anyone is looking for someone to test such cars, please know that I do a lot of travel, both day-to-day and road tripping, and yes, I will definitely sign up to test your self-driving car.

So, without further ado:

1 - Arizona is home to the nicest freeways
I couldn't find any stats on the best marked freeways in the US. (I did find a list of the worst freeways in the US, and can tell you that nothing on the list is in Arizona.  4 of the 5 worst are in California.) Still, I can tell you from personal experience of driving all over the country, Arizona's freeways are wonderful!  The signage is clear and gives you plenty of time to prepare; you always know exactly what lane you have to be in and when.  Autonomous cars will eventually need to get good at discerning bad signs (or have a different / smarter support infrastructure altogether), but for testing, I'd think you'd want to give them a fighting chance at success.   

2 - We've got sunshine!
While great signage is a start, its going to be hard for the autonomous vehicles to read them if they can't even see them.  Phoenix is one of the sunniest places in the country, with 211 clear sunny days per year, and 85 partly sunny days, giving us 85% sun year round.  Compare that to 73% sun in LA, 68% sun in San Diego, 66% sun in Tampa, Florida and San Francisco, and the choice is as clear as day (in Arizona).  It's funny, but even when its pouring rain, it can still be bright and sunny in Phoenix, a phenomenon I've never seen outside the state.  And when it does rain, it lasts a very short time and then resumes our usual, beautiful blue skies.

3 - Arizona has less red light runners
Red light running is probably going to be an anomaly that, while still needing to be addressed, will be very difficult to program around for autonomous cars.  Thus, early testing should be done where there are less red light runners to reduce early crashes and truly test the viability and logic of the self-driving car, not how it reacts to anomalies.  When all cars are autonomous, we won't have to worry about this problem.  

One research project classified 55.8% of US drivers as red light runners, while Arizona only had 52% red light runners.  Florida and California both had a higher percentage of red light runners.  The study didn't give specifics on all 50 states, but of the 10 focus states, Arizona had the lowest percentage (12.9%) of responders say they had run a red light at least once in the last 10 intersections. The national average was 19.4%, with California and Florida again being higher than that of Arizona.  California and Florida also had a higher percentage of crashes that resulted in red light running.   

4 - Strict DUI laws means less drunk drivers in Arizona
Arizona's Sheriff Joe is nothing if not known for his harsh punishments and strict enforcement around driving under the influence.  In 2011, 30% of fatalities on Arizona roads was related to alcohol.  While that number may seem high, compare that to the National average of 36%, California's 34% or Florida's 31%.  Arizona was the state with the 8th lowest percentage of fatalities due to alcohol.  Much like red light runners, drunk drivers are going to add complexity to an already complex system in autonomous cars, so ideal locations are those with low levels of drunk driving to begin testing.  

5 - Electronics can't take the heat
While most of my reasons are around creating a favorable environment to test the logic of the self-driving cars, I think it is also important to put the actual equipment to the test.  We have seen Arizona's extreme heat become a problem for electric vehicles that don't have cooling systems for their batteries.  In fact, many Nissan Leaf owners have lost 50% or more of their battery capacity in a matter of months, due to the extreme heat.  Thus, not wanting history to repeat itself, any vehicle relying heavily on electronics should be thoroughly tested in extreme conditions like those found in the Phoenix or Tucson areas of Arizona.  

I love my extended-range electric car, the Chevy Volt, but it still requires me to do the driving.  That means staying awake and not texting or tweeting or facebooking, and to me, driving is a big time suck.  I would much rather spend my time productively, or dosing off as needed.  If that means being an alert driver while testing an autonomous vehicle, so be it.  I am, in my opinion, a very safe and defensive driver.  I still trust the computer more than I trust my feeble human skills.  So, if anyone is looking for someone to test such cars (wink, wink, Google... nudge, nudge, Mercedes Benz), please know that I do a lot of travel, both day-to-day and road tripping, and yes, I will definitely sign up to test your self-driving car in the best location possible: Phoenix, Arizona.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

How to police self-driving cars

As you know from a previous post, I am a huge advocate of self-driving or autonomous cars.  In short, they would be exponentially safer than a human driving a car, and would free up time for its human passengers to do other activities.  After the question of safety, which I am not going to debate here, the next question is always around the law: who is accountable should a self-driving car have an accident?  I think the difficulty people are having with answering this question is that it is such a foreign concept to us that we can't wrap our brains around it.  Thus, I was inspired to write this post in order to simplify our thinking and perhaps clear the way for future discussions on this topic.  I'm going to make the case that car manufacturers, or more specifically, the company producing and installing the software into autonomous vehicles, should be held responsible for any accidents caused by vehicles using said software.  

Before you get all defensive on me, hear me out.  If a brand new car, driven off the lot, spontaneously explodes and injures the driver and a person in another car, the car manufacturer is at fault.  I think we can agree on that much.  More broadly, a malfunction of an unmodified vehicle that causes harm to someone (or really, had the potential to harm someone) is a product defect and thus the responsibility falls on the car manufacturer.  Of course, a car owner could void this responsibility by tinkering with the vehicle, in which case the car owner would be responsible if he/she created a defect in an otherwise certified safe car.  If another company did the tinkering that lead to the harm, the vehicle owner would hold that company accountable.  All of this is in practice today, and has been for many years.  

Now, let's apply it to autonomous vehicle features, without going fully self-driving.  New (high end) cars have some of these features already.  Yes, you heard me right: mass-produced cars are already doing some of the thinking for us.  Some drivers are already entrusting their lives into the hands of a car that makes its own decisions; and the rest of us are driving on the same roads as those cars.  The primary example I will focus on is the Volvo that stops itself before impact with a large object.  My brother-in-law was so excited when he test drove the car, bragging about how the salesman encouraged him to drive it directly at a brick wall.  Against all intuition, he successfully approached the brick wall at such a speed as to trigger the car to automatically apply the brakes.  Amazing!  Does this excite you?  Or scare you?  And more importantly, what happens if the car's software has a glitch?  One could imagine how a glitch could trigger the car to randomly apply the brakes on the freeway, causing the car behind it to plow into it.  Who is at fault for the cause of the accident?  Sure, the other driver might get a ticket for driving too close to be unable to stop in time, but I would argue that stopping in the middle of the freeway with no reason could be questioned; and its certainly not the Volvo owner's fault, right?  The test drive showed that no matter what the driver is doing, those brakes are going to be applied if that's what the car has decided to do.  Thus, responsibility must be taken out of the driver's hands.  

Now let's take a different angle.  Let's suppose that the Volvo driver is suddenly faced with stopped traffic ahead and an out-of-control runaway semi-truck barreling down a hill at him.  The driver, seeing this, attempts to swerve around the stopped traffic, maybe even attempt to hit the guard rail and plow through it, rather than be squashed between a semi and the car in front of him.  Certainly, if the driver is able to rationally see the guard rail as a favorable collision to being squashed, he should be able to maneuver the car in order to do so, and potentially save his life.  If then the Volvo's autonomous braking feature prevents the driver from driving into the guard rail, and he is instead squashed, would there not be a public outcry and lawsuits against Volvo?  

Parking is another aspect we're seeing early autonomy in.  Some features are just park assist features, like guide lines on the camera.  But some cars are actually controlling and manipulating the steering wheel.  If this doesn't scare the nay-sayers, I don't know what it will take to scare them.  Yet parking is one of the most accident-prone parts of driving, because we are dealing with tighter tolerances.  Tighter tolerances is also a good reason to have the computer take over, too, since computers are more precise and accurate than people are.  Regardless of the rationale, there will still be some damage done by an auto parking car eventually, and I am sure that the car manufacturer will be found at fault for this error that could have been prevented by a human driver.  

I'd be willing to bet that, long before our cars drive themselves completely, we'll see at least one such accident go to court and favor the driver.  That court case is going to be crucial in setting the precedent for future autonomous car accidents.  Car companies installing autonomous features have to be ready for this. 

This, in no way, should deter car manufacturers from adding these features to their cars and moving forward with vehicle autonomy.  Smart features that enhance the safety of a vehicle are going to be primarily selling points.  There will be late adopters who will resist, and that's true of all technologies.  But the majority of the population will gradually become comfortable with these features, and the features will become selling points or requirements in future purchasing decisions.  Instead of car manufacturers shirking away from the technology because of the messy legal fears, they need to embrace the responsibility with the added value that can be derived from the features.  This will serve as motivation to ensure utmost safety of their features - glitch-proof, do-no-harm mentality needs to be instilled, while the return on investment will still be positive.

Still, there will be accidents.  Some will be tragedies that would not have happened had a human driver been in control.  And the nay-sayers will point to them being the beginning of the end.  But my bet is that we will see a vast improvement in safety overall: fewer fatal accidents, fewer pedestrian accidents, fewer accidents causing injuries.  Fewer intentional "accidents", too, by the way, caused by road rage and suicidal / homicidal incidents that go unrecorded for lack of evidence.  All across the board, our roads will get safer and safer as more people drive cars with more and more autonomous features.  Autonomous cars are better for the society as a whole, and will greatly reduce the inherent risk of getting into a vehicle.  Let's not forget how fatal driving can be today - we must never forget that.  The most important thing, when there is an accident caused by an autonomous feature, is to collect all the data we can about that accident and prevent it from happening again.  Pioneers of all sorts are often made into sacrifices and martyrs, and I wish just as much as anyone else that this didn't have to be the case with early adopters of the self-driving car, but I know it is bound to happen.  It will happen, we will settle it in court, and we will move on.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Just Start

Being maybe a little more than a casual writer, I tend to find words flowing from my finger tips often faster than I can type (and often at inconvenient times when I'm not at a keyboard). But I recognize that it doesn't come to everyone as easily. One piece of advice I've heard, and indeed applied to my own experience when facing a bit of writer's block, is to just start writing. It seems too simple, silly even, but it works. Whenever I am not sure how to start a piece, I just start typing; it can be as bad as stream of consciousness if need be. Because we are no longer limited to pieces of paper or typewriters, we can always go back and delete the garbage or edit as needed. The point is that when you start writing (/typing), you get the words flowing and things start coming. Too many times, we are scared of that first sentence or first word, and the anxiety prevents us from thinking past it. By the "just start" methodology, you can go back and fix the zinger at the beginning later, and it gets work down on the (figurative) paper.

I mentioned this very casually in response to my boyfriend's recent anxiety about a placement test he had to take for school. I didn't think much of it at the time, but he came back afterwards and told me emphatically how well it worked. Again, to me, it seems like such a little thing, but it clearly helped him in a much bigger way. I was just grateful that I hadn't held it back for fear of sounding silly or soapbox-y.

With that on the back of my mind, not doing much, I found another application of the "just start" methodolgy. This time, it was in solving Chipotle's Adventurrito Puzzle #4, in which a list of words were to be used to re-create funny Chipotle slogans. While I love me some Chipotle, they weren't immediately coming to me. There's always the easy out of googling the answers once some people started solving the puzzle, but I figured this was one that I had a chance of solving on my own, and I wanted to at least tackle the challenge, if not conquer. So as you may have guessed, I just started to put words into boxes. Themes of words started to emerge, and I grouped the similarly themed words and rearranged them. Before no time, I had all the boxes filled in with answers that made sense. Unfortunately, I nearly had a mental breakdown when the "Submit" button didn't work, a glitch Chipotle remedied shortly after the outcries on Twitter. But the bottom line is that I solved the puzzles, not because I had memorized all Chipotle slogans over the last 20 years, but because I just played with the words until they made sense. I had to start somewhere, so I just started.

With two incidents of the "just start" method popping up back to back, I got to thinking more about what this can be applied to. I am still trying to master the microblog artistry of Twitter; and often I write out all my thoughts first and then shorten them up to fit in the 140 characters. So I guess that again can be considered a "just start" application, since it would be infinitely more difficult for me to come up with the concise message before typing.

One thing I know I do without having previously realized it is, when someone writes a nasty / idiotic email to me, I tend to hit the reply button, then remove all the names in the To field, and write my own nasty response back. My intent is to not send that email, but to get out my frustrations in a draft. Once that is out of my system (and sometimes after a brief walk if its really bad), then I can write a professional, helpful email back.

In fact, almost all tedious, painful tasks that cause us anxiety can be started (and pushed to completion) with the "just start" method. Replacing my toilet over the Fourth of July required me to get into something I had never done before. I did a little reading up on it and watching YouTube videos, but eventually, I figured I just had to start on it and see what help I needed. Nothing can get done if its not started, and I think the starting is the hardest part. Sure, it doesn't help to start things that never get completed, so there is something to be said about perseverance after the start. After "just starting", maybe one needs to get a sense of "just keep swimming" from Dory or "one step at a time," which I've used in training for a half-marathon. But I think a lot of our anxiety is around how to begin. Thus, I think I would modify Nike's slogan "Just do it," to "Just Start," especially when "doing it" seems too difficult to comprehend.

All of my examples thus far have been tactical activities, with tangible results, and I hope you find this advice immensely helpful for such tasks. I think we can dig a little deeper, though. I blogged at the start of my current relationship that I am cautiously nervous about it. But with all the doubts and weird too-good-to-be-true feelings floating around, when Jaiman asked me to be his girlfriend, I took the leap. I let it just start, because I knew that delaying the relationship, which was clearly inevitable, could be detrimental to my and his short-term happiness, in addition to causing more anxiety and insecurity long-term. Looking back at failed relationships, I can definitely see where this anxiety, about starting something new and forgetting the past, tore a number of them apart. I am glad I didn't let it wreck havoc on this relationship, and I hope this realization will prevent me from pushing back in the future.

People linger on the past a lot, some more than others, myself included. I am not sure what draws us to cling to our past so much, but there are times that we must move on. We have this perception that, because "time heals all wounds", our past will gradually fade into distant memory. That may be true, but in my experience, that takes a really, REALLY long time. I would assert that, after some time of mourning, we need to pick a day and say that this is the beginning of the rest of our lives. We need to pick up our past, place it in a memory box and close it, and then put that box on a shelf in the closet. Out of sight, out of mind. We need to once again plan for the future, look forward to upcoming joys, and celebrate what we have.

If it is time to write a new chapter, we need to just start.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Racism and BAD Journalism

I'll be the first to admit that I don't follow the news very well.  I get Breaking News updates and I read my Twitter feeds, and if there's a common theme that is compelling enough, I might choose to spend time checking it out.  The most difficult thing about such a means of digesting news is that by the time I'm jumping in, the news pages dedicated to that specific issue are already way ahead of me and I don't know the premise or the basic facts.  I've found that, for better or for worse, I can get the big picture, from the beginning, most easily from Wikipedia.  

In this way, I finally gave in to reading about the Zimmerman trial.  I skimmed the Wikipedia article, focusing in on the opening statements and the evidence presented.  Based on what I read, I came to the conclusion for myself that it was a move of self-defense.  Now mind you, I don't watch the news on TV, and my breaking news alerts don't have pictures. I saw mention of that awful n- word, but I didn't know the race of either participant.  For all I knew, Zimmerman could have been black and Martin could have been white.  In fact, I had no reason to believe it was the other way around based on the Wikipedia article, because what I read was that Martin was calling Zimmerman the n- word in hateful language, not the other way around.  It was only when, after getting the context of the trial, I started looking at other articles, that I came to realize who was black and who was white, and why it could be made into a racial issue.

So here's my point: from the evidence I've read about, the most objective I think possible, I don't think there is any reason to believe this is or should be a racial issue.  If, and I'm only saying if, the outcome is that Zimmerman is declared innocent, having shot and killed in self-defense, I really, truly wish that we as a united, just country could look at it logically and rationally and accept the outcome.  I say wish instead of hope, because I am certain there will be some level of racially-motivated backlash, so my hope is that the backlash will be minimal, and my wish is that it wouldn't happen at all.  I mean, if we can elect a black President, isn't that enough evidence to say that, as a whole, this country is not racist anymore?  Of course there will still be groups of racist idiots and hate crimes of all sorts, and I will not downplay the severity or horror of those people and events.  But enough people in our country went out to the polls to either say we support a black President (I wish this wasn't even an issue, but I know it exists) or that we support Obama to be President regardless of race (my preference).  I'll be honest, I thought there were too many racists in the country for Obama to gain enough votes; and I personally voted against him because I disagreed with his political position and agreed with his opposition, but that's beside the point.  Even though I was disappointed that my favorite candidate wasn't elected, I was delighted in the fact that America put the first black man in the Oval Office, and that was a big step for our country.  Now, if we can just stop making random issues into race issues when they aren't, we could really be the society we want to be.

I read one opinion piece (and at least it stated it was an opinion piece, which is better than some of the editorial garbage being published as if its fact) that just outraged me.  The author, who was flaunting that she is black and speaking from that perspective, stated that the case is cut and dry: there is one person dead and one person alive, therefore it was an act of racist hatred.  She said that because its a "murder" trial, that the person on trial must be a "murderer" because someone is dead.  By that standard, anytime anyone dies, someone should be hung for murder.  Her reasoning implies that there is never anything such as self-defense, and no such thing as an accident; anytime someone is killed, its because of a vicious, murderous intent and nothing else.  She's basically saying, let's not examine any evidence, there's no need, someone is dead so the other person should serve life in prison.  Let's start a witch hunt, shall we?  Maybe it was sensational journalism to stir up the readers and gain publicity, in which case it probably did its job and I'm not going to help it along by sharing the link or the author's name.  I think its downright idiocy, and writers like that should have their publishing privileges revoked.  

Listen, I am disgusted by how much coverage terrorists and murderers in mass shootings get, and not just because there are so many better things we could be talking about.  I truly believe that messed up people see it as glorification of those crimes, and are thereby encouraged to commit or attempt similar crimes in hopes of making it into the sensational news.  To be clear, my assertion is that there would be less mass shootings and awful people-created tragedies if we didn't honor them with weeks of news stories.  

In that same light, I think that making non-racial issues into racial issues incites more backlash and separates us more.  In fact, even if it was a racial issue, I don't think it should be treated as such.  If someone actually shoots and kills another person with harmful intentions, regardless of the reason why, it is a crime.  Why do we have to classify it as a hate crime?  Why do we have to point out that he/she may have been racist?  When someone dies, that is sad.  When someone intends to kill someone, and succeeds, that is sad.  It's sad that we live in such a world.  It's sad that someone can take another's life so easily.  The color of the injured, wounded skin should be the furthest thing from our minds.  A person dressed like a punk and acting suspiciously could cause a problem, I don't care what color their skin is.  And a man who is attacked and acts in self defense is in his own right, no matter how old he is, if he is armed, or if he is white.  I'm not saying that is what happened; I'm just saying that's a possibility everyone should be open to.  The only alternative version would be that an armed man chased down an unarmed man who he mistook to be bad, and shot and killed him without good reason.  There should not be a version where racism is an issue; I've known racists who never committed murder.  Murder is murder no matter what the motive is, and racism doesn't cause murder.  

Yet, what I have read about this trial indicates that it is already building momentum as a race issue, no thanks to slanted reporters looking to cause a stir to get ratings.  Good, honest journalism seems to go out the window with some reporters when it means driving more traffic, even if it generates negative comments.  I guess the old mantra "no press is bad press" translates to "no traffic is bad traffic".  So taking the extreme view, even if its blatantly wrong, helps the audacious writer to win for all the wrong reasons.  One comment I read says, "If riots break out over the Martin shooting, I hope criminal charges are brought against NBC and its doppleganger, MSNBC, for incitement."  I haven't read a lot of the news stories yet, so I don't know if NBC specifically did report bad news.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment; slanting facts to get people excited or angry should be punished if it leads to any kind of crime or injury.  If NASDAQ can be sued for poorly managing the facebook IPO, journalists should be held accountable for altering facts or presenting them in overly slanted ways.  I don't know if our society is ready to hold journalists to higher standards just yet, but I think it is inevitable in the future.  

On the topic of battling racism, I have to share a story.  I knew a man, dressed in a suit, who was mugged on a prestigious college campus from which he proudly graduated.  Where he was mugged was in an open field, with very little foot traffic, and lots of room to cross the field to get to where a person was going. The three muggers had several piercings among them, and were wearing baggy pants around their knees, boxers showing, hooded sweatshirts and baseball hats sideways.  By anyone's definition, they were dressed like punks.  People dressed like punks aren't inherently bad.  But based on the dress and actions of these three men in particular, I'd go ahead and say they were criminals.  The fact that they were black should have had no bearing on the conversation.  Describing them as black should have been limited to the report to the police in order to help identify suspects.  Here's where racism sneaks into our subconscious: the way the mugging victim, who was white, described the event was that he was "mugged by three black men."  And there it is.  Note, he didn't use the n- word or anything traditionally seen as racist or derogatory.  But he pointed out their race, when it wasn't really necessary to the conversation.  Being mugged is bad on its own, it doesn't matter who mugged you.  Yet, if they had been three white men, then he would have just said he was "mugged by three men," or "mugged by three assholes," or something similar.  What if they were all speaking with, say, an Italian accent?  Would he have said he was "mugged by three Italians"?  I somehow doubt that.  What if they were white women?  Maybe being mugged by the opposite gender would be seen as embarrassing, and the man would have just said, "I was mugged," and leave it at that.  Or, if he assumes or learns that the women were part of a gang, "I was mugged by three gang members."  He certainly wouldn't have said, "I was mugged by three white, female gang members with blonde hair and blue eyes," in normal conversation.  That would just be weird.  Yet it sits okay with most people that he would say, "I was mugged by three black men."  

This is where I think we should focus our energy - not on blowing relationships between individuals of different colors out of proportion, but in how we describe and see events.  Nobody wants to be mugged, and being mugged by a black person isn't better or worse than being mugged by a white person.  He should have just said, "I was mugged," and we'd all feel bad for him and glad that he was ultimately okay.  

I want to clarify that I do believe it is okay to make assumptions about people for our own safety.  If three such men, dressed like punks, were walking directly at me when they had no reason to be walking towards me, I'd be nervous / suspicious, no matter what color their skin was.  That is the natural thing to do; that is acting with self preservation at heart.  Had they been dressed in suits, it would have still been odd that they were walking directly towards me.   

Unfortunately for the victim I am speaking of, he didn't see them coming, so he had no way of profiling them or making good decisions prior to the attack anyways (except, perhaps, not being so distracted that he didn't see them coming).  My point is that profiling based on behavior is a much more powerful thing than looking at race, and yes, I think dress is part of that behavior.  How a man carries himself, how he dresses, and if he seems to have a purpose to what he is doing, are all better indicators of how he might act or if he's potentially a "bad guy" than whether or not he was born to black parents.  I've heard it joked about that if you see a black man in a nice car, you assume he must have stolen it.  That kind of profiling is downright wrong.  But if you see a punk-ass looking kid in a really expensive car, and he is acting nervous, hell, it might be worth acting upon.  

I dare you to think what the media would be saying about the trial at hand if Zimmerman was black and Martin was white.  For the sake of this exercise, if only for the sake of this exercise, let's just assume that all evidence indicates that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense and that Martin viciously attacked him, calling him the n- word.  Would it be portrayed as a victory over racism, because a racist white man attacked a black man and died as a result?  Would the media raise alarm bells about racism in our courts because Zimmerman was clearly innocent, and yet was being accused simply because he was black?  I'd say if you read the facts over again, assuming that Zimmerman was black and Martin was white, and your conclusion changes, then you're creating a race issue that isn't there.  I'm not saying we should ignore race issues, I'm just saying we shouldn't fabricate them.  

We may never know who first hit who in the Zimmerman incident.  We may never know beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted purely in self-defense.  It doesn't matter if we do.  This country's justice system says we are innocent until proven guilty.  It is not the responsibility of the accused to prove innocence.  I think our society forgets that sometimes.  I don't want to be a society of witch-hunters.  I want our system to punish what is clearly wrongdoing, and not punish what is not clearly wrongdoing.  That is the only part of our justice system, our media and our culture, which should be black and white.