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Opinion

The Top 5 Things Hollywood Gets Wrong About Self-Driving Cars

One of the most fun things about being a sci-fi fan at an artificial intelligence and robotics company is that, when you rewatch the movies and shows you loved as a kid, all you see are the holes. Why can’t R2D2 talk? Why aren’t robots risking their “lives” instead of Star Trek’s Red Shirts?

Since most of my time is spent around autonomous vehicles, I decided to make a list of a few irksome things famous TV shows and films get wrong about self-driving technology. Let’s go!

1) Why is there a robot in the driver’s seat?

One of the most famous self-driving cars in film appeared in what I believe is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best movie,Total Recall.” In the year 2084, our protagonist wakes up in a Johnny Cab, which is an autonomous taxi driven by an armless, humanoid, torso with a talking head on a rotating spindle. The entire contraption occupies what we currently call the driver’s seat, which is a wretched use of space for a robot. 

Johnny spins around to face Arnie and talk, which means none of the sensors necessary to drive are actually inside its torso-head. Since those sensors must be elsewhere on the vehicle, the only possible purpose of Johnny is to make the passenger feel more comfortable riding in an autonomous vehicle. It’s a nice feature, but it begs the question: If you have the technology to build an autonomous vehicle, why do you need a robot literally in the driver’s seat? 

This very inefficient design becomes a real safety problem when Arnie rips Johnny off his base and takes control via…a joystick on the dash. Johnny doesn’t need this joystick to drive, which means it’s only there in case a human (maybe a technician?) absolutely has to take over manual control, perhaps at low speed around a garage. But then why eliminate both front seats? Where is the technician meant to sit? Arnie has to lean forward from the back seat to use the joystick, which is no easy feat, and there’s no failsafe or speed limiter preventing him from driving full speed through a crowd of people, which introduces a huge liability problem for the taxi company.

Verdict: Robotics belong under the hood, not behind the wheel.

2) Why do autonomous vehicles need to talk?

“Total Recall” joins a long list of shows and movies depicting autonomous vehicles that carry on conversations with passengers, with varying success. Johnny Cab wasn’t very good at it, but other humanoids are indistinguishable from humans. The most famous example remains NBC’s originalKnight Rider” (1982-1986) which was uncannily accurate in many other ways, but wildly optimistic on voice interfaces.

According to a friend at Argo AI, “solving the problem of self driving cars doesn’t mean the car can pass a verbal Turing Test.” As hard as it is to deploy an autonomous vehicle that can safely carry passengers, building a “Knight Rider-style KITT AI is an entirely different and much more difficult problem. As a passenger, if you want to go from A to B, all you care about is having an app with really good maps, both of which exist today. Voice input would be nice, but its effectiveness is only as good as its ability to understand not just words, but intent, and AI still has a long way to go.

Verdict: We’ll be riding in autonomous vehicles long before we have full-on conversations with AI that can pass a Turing-test.

3) Why are vehicles so easily hacked?

The classic Hollywood automotive “hack” involves remotely taking full control of a vehicle without ever having had physical access to it, which routinely occurs in “Knight Rider.” That’s hard enough to do on a single car with wireless connectivity, but that hasn’t stopped screenwriters from pretending it happens all the time, as if legions of talented engineers aren’t constantly working on, testing for, and trying to protect from that exact threat.

The most outrageous and absurd automotive hack occurs in “Fast & The Furious 8”, which depicts hackers simultaneously, remotely hacking dozens of different makes and models in under 30 seconds, and deploying them en masse like a mobile zombie car army. Some of the cars have drivers inside, apparently unable to override their zombie vehicles. Others are older cars lacking connectivity, with mechanical gear shifters.

You don’t need to be a cybersecurity expert to know you can’t remotely move a mechanical gear shifter from park to drive to reverse, and that’s assuming you could remotely access an older car at all.

Verdict: Even the world’s greatest hackers can’t overtake both vehicles and human drivers.

4) Will autonomous vehicles always crash, or never crash?

Autonomous vehicles are central to the recent Amazon showUpload”, which gets so much wrong, I could devote an entire column to it. While some films depict self-driving vehicles as hapless and unreliable, virtually every character on Upload is certain self-driving cars will never crash. As in zero crashes, ever. The protagonist even speculates that his self-driving car only crashed because it was hacked, then states that the notion is crazy. 

But the internal logic of “Upload” is fuzzy, because both hacking and crashes do happen in the show. The protagonist even hacks his own autonomous car in the pilot, and [spoiler alert] is later killed because someone else hacks his car to make it crash.

None of this makes any sense, but hey, it’s supposed to be a comedy.

The odds of an autonomous vehicle being in a crash due to a “friendly” hack by someone with direct access, or a malicious remote hack like in Fast 8, are extraordinarily low, because those are the types of things designers might anticipate and defend against.

Set aside Upload’s contradictions and let’s be honest: even a properly designed autonomous vehicle, capable of driving way more safely than I can, may eventually be involved in a collision. One scenario that could be hard to avoid is a human-driven vehicle running a red light. Drive long enough and eventually the world’s greatest driver will meet something no one (and no technology) can predict: things like earthquakes, alien invasions, rampaging elephants, or a streetfight between King Kong and Godzilla.

Verdict: There’s no such thing as 100% certainty in life, but when it comes to passenger safety we sure can do better than we’re doing now, and autonomous vehicles are part of the solution.

5) Why is self-driving all or nothing?

FromMinority Report” toI, Robot” and “The Fifth Element,” future roads are often depicted as high-speed Utopias full of autonomous cars, flying cars, skyways, vertically highways, levitating bullet trains and hovercycles. No crashes. No old cars. Most of the “cars” are identical, suggesting private ownership is a thing of the past.

But the reality is that autonomous vehicles will co-exist with human-driven vehicles for a long time. The average car’s lifespan is 11 years. Properly maintained, cars can last decades. Electric cars have fewer moving parts, and are likely to last even longer. That means future roads will be filled with a cross-section of vehicles, new and old, just like they are now, with the oldest cars on future roads a lot older than they are today.

Even if autonomous vehicles could operate anywhere, anytime — unlikely in our lifetimes — as long as human-owned and operated vehicles are sold, autonomous vehicles will have to be designed to co-exist with them… and us.

That’s a future I look forward to.

Verdict: Even in our sci-fi future, there will always be classic cars, because there will always be humans who want to drive them.

Right or wrong, you can still love them all

The thing I love about all of these shows and films is that they’re incredibly inspiring. For every pessimistic depiction of technology, there’s someone out there thinking how can I stop that from happening? And for every positive depiction, someone is wondering why can’t I have that now? That’s the seed of invention. That’s how companies get started. That’s how I went from being a sci-fan to working at a company turning fiction into fact.

And I know I’m not alone.

Do you have any favorite pop culture depictions of technology you want me to deconstruct? Every time I think I’ve seen it all, someone sends me something I’ve never heard of. Email us your best suggestions.

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