Getting it wrong on self-driving vehicles

by John Q on December 9, 2021

A few years ago, I got enthusiastic about the prospects for self-driving vehicles, and wrote a couple of posts on the topic. It’s now clear that this was massively premature, as many of the commenters on my post argued. So, I thought it would be good to consider where and why I went wrong on this relatively unimportant issue, in the hopes of improving my thinking more generally.

The first thing I got wrong was overcorrecting on an argument I’d made for a long time, about the difference between radical progress in information and communications technology and stagnation in transport technology. The initial successful trials of self-driving vehicles in desert locations led me to think that ICT had finally come to transport, when in fact only the easiest part of the problem was solved.

There was also an element of wishful thinking. As commenter Hidari observed, the most obvious use of self-driving vehicles is to provide mobility for 75+ Baby Boomers. As someone approaching that category, and having never liked driving much, this is an appealing prospect for me. And I liked the idea of taking other bad drivers’ hands off the steering wheel.

That framing of the issue is very different from the way a lot of commenters saw it. Should self-driving cars be seen as automated taxis, and if so is automation desirable or not? Is any improvement in car technology a distraction from the need to shift away from cars altogether? I don’t have good answers to these questions, but they indicate that resistance to self-driving cars won’t be purely a matter of technological judgement.

Finally, having put forward a position, I am usually tenacious in defending it. Within limits, that’s a good thing, particularly in the context of a blog where the discussion doesn’t have any direct implications for what happens in the world. It’s good to put up the strongest case, and test it against all counter-arguments. But that approach carries the risk of being obstinately wrong.

I’m hoping discussion here will help me deal with more consequential errors of judgement I’ve made. So feel free either to discuss the original question of self-driving vehicles or the broader issue of how to think about mistakes, and particularly mistakes I’ve made.

Getting to know cities through science

by Eszter Hargittai on December 9, 2021

Covid times don’t allow for a lot of travel, but that doesn’t have to stand in the way of dreaming about and planning travel. My parents have written four books that put an interesting twist on getting to know a city: through its landmarks related to science. Their first in the series was Budapest Scientific, fitting since that is where they have lived for much of their lives and where they are both members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Next came New York Scientific then Science in Moscow, and finally Science in London. Each is filled with many hundreds of photographs to illustrate how the various places commemorate important scientific achievements and researchers through statues, memorial plaques, and other ways of remembering. Some are well-known sculptures, others will be new even to locals. They make great gifts in case anyone happens to be looking for ideas. :-)