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Hagerty Employee

Avoidable Contact #66: The autonomous grift, and how you’re going to pay the price for it

I can’t tell you what the price of oil, bitcoin, or Tesla stock will be 24 hours from now, but I feel absolutely confident in making the following longer-term prediction: You are never going to share the road with a significant number of autonomous vehicles. “Never,” in this case, is a fancy way to say never. Not in the lifetime of anyone reading this column. I am stone-cold certain about this. If you want to contact me and make some sort of bet, I’m your huckleberry—but give me a chance to convince you on the matter first.


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I'll take you up on that betting offer. I'm 22, so I'm confident that self-driving cars will be on the roads before I'm dead. I'm also confident that legislators and public safety officials are ignorant and careless enough to allow self-driving cars to cause absolute mayhem by driving alongside us. How much money are you willing to put down?


A pretty fair amount, although I'm 48 so your bet will really be with my son. Email me:

Intermediate Driver

Self-driving cars are already on the road.  Jack said you wouldn't see a significant amount of them.

Advanced Driver

Self driving cars would take the adventure out of life. I first drove across the country at age 17, in an eight year old '62 Ford Falcon. I felt the distance, because I was always behind the wheel.


When you drive westward in Nebraska, you can feel the almost imperceptible climb, which begins as soon as you've crossed the Missouri River, from Iowa, into Omaha. That first time, I wasn't sure if I was imagining the climb; all these years later I googled the elevations of a few towns along route 80 to see exactly how much I'd been climbing lo those many years ago. I wouldn't have been aware of the climbing in a self driving car. 


The next day, it was pouring during the last several hours of Wyoming, and on into Utah. When I got to the last pass before descending into Salt Lake City, I could see the entire Salt Lake Valley through the rain. In the valley there were spots where the sun was shining, and places where it was pouring. What an amazing view!


Imagine simply punching in the address of your destination, and then working on your laptop, or going on social media, or sleeping, instead of feeling the wide open spaces that our forebears crossed in covered wagons, or on horseback.


I hope you're right Jack. I hope you're right. 


Yeah, closed-loop systems are perfectly viable... where there is no weather variation, etc. and if you keep all the stray people out.


Ford could easily, today, set up a network of private roads through Detroit (let's say as there are still lots of needing-reborn areas there) that only their self-driving cars go on. No pedestrian traffic, the cars only take you from A to B and then go back to Ford garage where Ford technicians do all the mundane stuff (i.e., clean off all sensors) to make sure this no-driver car can function for another hour. Has to be a big player that owns a fleet of cars/pods though. Detroit gets weather though...


But maybe this (large company runs what is basically a taxi fleet in a given city) could actually be profitable in some places where weather helps the cause.


It's probably also possible/viable to steal a lane from chunks of the interstate system and do driverless trucking from hub points. Self driving transport through industrial parks or to construction sites I don't see working out too well.


I'll take your bet as you've already lost it. As of *two years ago* Waymo's (Google) fleet of autonomous cars have driven "...20 million miles on public roads in 25 cities, including Novi, Michigan; Kirkland, Washington; and San Francisco. That’s up from 10 million only a year ago..." They've probably close to doubled that by now. If you live in any of these densely populated cities, chances are you've driven with an autonomous vehicle, even if you didn't recognize it as such.


The Waymo cars are easy to recognize, and they need human intervention all the time. The "Self-driving" BMW taxis used in Vegas are no better; they can't even pull into a hotel parking lot without help. If the gap between Tesla self-piloting and human driving capability is, let's say, ten units, the Waymos have about 9 units to go.


Jack, I think you are spot on.  Whenever I have talked to someone who knows much more about AI, and you get them to truly open up, they generally say that we are a long way from making this work in anything but a subset of the roads out there today.

Pit Crew

I read the earth is flat and the moon is made out of green cheese too.


I think the issue comes about with your definition of "self driving".  If you mean you walk out of your house and get into the "passenger compartment", kick back and read or sleep until you arrive at your destination then you're probably right about someone my age (66).  But I have high hopes my children and super high hopes my grandchildren will do just that.


That said, we already have what are quite close to autonomous vehicles driving beside the idiots.  In Phoenix they have Waymo, in other cities there are other vehicles that have "drivers" but only to "take over if something goes wrong".  And certainly it can and does now but when it does it's a big story.


My 2018 Model 3 with FSD does a very competent job on the freeway, even taking the right exits to other freeways and the final exit from the freeway.  To suggest we will NEVER get better than this is to hide one's head in the sand.


It's going to happen.  Maybe not in my lifetime (although I bet a couple grand it will) but at least in my children's.  Civilization wants it too bad.

Pit Crew

Why do you just assume that your kids, grand-kid's would WANT this type of life?? Again I would ask you just how **bleep** far down that road are you willing to send your kids and their offspring with all aspects of their lives related to technology? It would appear that you would be willing to sacrifice their abilities to live as THEY chose at the expense of what YOU think the world should look like. I hesitate to guess how many lives would be far less enjoyable or exciting with the vision of everything being controlled by AI and little space for the abilities for humans to do things for themselves; bad or good. One that wishes such lives on others based on their wants and desires usually takes a job in DC to simply control others destinies, not because others want that vision but because people like you think they can make a better life for everyone based upon their desired visions; and now you are projecting those desires onto future generations whether they want them or not. Sorry but I am older than you and there is nothing I wish more than to let all my family have their lives be what they want them to be not what some AI system or conglomerate of politicians and companies determine their future should look like.

Intermediate Driver

I agree with you Jack.  This self-driving dream has been around so long, it predates me.  This is a GM movie from 1956, predicting gas-turbine cars with self-driving by "19 and 76".  Listen carefully for the comment by the hotelier about "pre-digested food" ?!  Yikes.  I'm glad this predicted future didn't come to pass...


Advanced Driver

Bravo, Jack. Autonomous driving is emblematic of the destruction of individual freedom, the quintessentially human drive of developing one's physical and sensory prowess, and of ceding control to gigantic, non-accountable entities like governments and utility companies.


Lead & Gold transmutation part is backwards, though an alchemist who could turn gold into lead would surely have created a powerful weapon.


I've been turning gold into lead all my life --- ask the fellow who used to sell me reloading equipment!

Pit Crew

Jack, Great points on the shortfalls and ramifications of technology on autonomous cars.  However, you left out another determining factor of why it will never happen – money; specifically, insurance money.  The insurance companies will not issue bonds for roads to be built for cars powered by computer logic that has been programmed on whether to hit the deer or the child.


Litigation firms are salivating for literally careers that can be built around an autonomous car issues that have gone wrong.  “Who’s fault was it when the car purposely plowed into the deer and injured the driver?”


Follow the money, it does not lead to “…a significant number of autonomous vehicles. ‘Never’”


We don't really need 100% autonomy to make a huge difference in the fatality and accident rate. The current fleet offerings include great tools to keep cars from crashing into things. Lane keeping, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control. These things are great for safety and are getting better every year. In ten years, new cars will be virtually crash proof. The problem will still be trying to avoid the 100% manual cars, which will be like random missiles to the computer.  


Jack, I thought it was really cool when you gave your son gage blocks.  Now I am really impressed!  I would never have imagined seeing anything about a “Fast Fourier transform,” in an article about cars.  Although, as with a lot of what you write, it really isn't just about the cars.    


I should have studied a lot more math than I did, for sure --- I'm reading an old calculus textbook at the moment and it's slow going!


You must be exhausted from always swimming upstream but at least you usually stay in your lane.  Humans have a bias to think linearly, AI improvements are made exponentially.  A few months ago we had a handful of virus cases and now we have millions because of this same human bias.


"AI improvements are made exponentially"? It sounds impressive, but what does that really mean? AI doesn't exist, and machine learning is progressing at about the rate of processor power increase * improvements in statistical algorithms, which does not equate to "exponential".

Intermediate Driver

A favorite road tune comes to mind - "My uncle has a country place that no one knows about, he says it used to be a farm before the 'Motor Law'..." (RUSH - Red Barchetta). 


I suppose I'll be considered an outlaw IF "they" manage to somehow impose 'Autonomous Only' on the roadways in my lifetime...

Intermediate Driver

I've worked with engineers in the auto industry for over 30 years, and I believe the primary reason all the industry is taking on autonomy is that engineers love a challenge, the more  insurmountable the better.  In the sixties, the elites wanted to kill the automobile, cities were supposed to be car-free, and our mobility was to be severely trimmed.  That's why the emissions laws and safety rules were set so high, no known technology could reach their lofty heights.  Well, the auto engineering community rolled up their sleeves and came up with catalytic converters, more and better fuel optimization techniques, crumple zones, ultra high strength steels and a whole panoply of technologies.  No wonder car companies feel they can cheat death again.


But the bureaucrats and social planners have not given up their dreams of a car-less society.  Autonomy is goals they are willing to live with.  Cars that are unable to speed.  Unable to change lanes.  Unable to take a curve at an entertaining pace.  Energy consumption will be optimized for our own good.  Supposedly we will have cars that will not crash, but every sci-fi movie has a "robot boneyard" of broken autonomous toys.  Perfection is not of this world, nor the future world.  But the budding plutocrats in our midst hope that Mr. Baruth is right, that autonomy is unattainable.  Just as vehicle emission levels, no matter how benign, have now gotten impossible to achieve, forcing emissions away from vehicles to power plants, autonomy will be mandated as well.  But if autonomy, really, can never happen, the desired end of any individual mobility will be finally achieved.

Pit Crew

I have been against the whole autonomous thing for a long time. I was studying the subject not long ago and the one reality of autonomous vehicles is the end of a lifestyle for me or others like me. Every model of autonomous driving cannot make room for motorcycles. It was written somewhere (don’t ask me to remember) that motorcycles would be legislated off the road before autonomous cars come to fruition. 

I don’t know how much truth there is to this scenario, but the thought of it scares me. I’ve already been crippled by a negligent driver and today’s laws state the driver is not responsible. We can barely get states to pass laws protecting motorcyclist, bicyclists, and pedestrians from road users. Now imagine if the big money was behind keeping themselves out of liability with autonomous cars. I see no future for future non-car travelers. 


I believe never is too strong a word. People throughout history who have said never have been proven wrong on many topics 

many thought man would never fly, others thought the horseless carriage would never replace the horse and we can go on and on. 
My son until a recent job change was an engineer at Ford’s power train facility in Dearborn and I was able to see and learn about some of the “driverless car”  technology and I was admittedly skeptical and later became admittedly impressed. I believe these vehicles will be on the road, in certain applications. And that’s not a bad thing. The vehicles that are already being road tested in Dearborn are better and safer drivers than my 86 year old mother who thankfully recently gave up her car keys. She was much more a danger to herself and others than even the current autonomous vehicles and I am convinced these cars can safely get her to the grocery store or church etc. There are other applications these cars will be helpful or even desirable, ask anyone in LA who has over an hour slow commute in boring bumper to bumper traffic every day. All that being said I don’t see these cars replacing human drivers, at least I sure hope they don’t. I have way to much fun shifting gears on my 71 corvette to ever want that to happen!


A great article!  Radar braking, lane detection etc. so annoying and it fails in the rain, fog or snow.  We can't even get our cell phones to work all the time, how do we expect something as complex as driving go automated?  The scary point is all the car manufacturers are spending billions trying to get it to work.  I guess selling uninspired overpriced vehicles has caught them from behind so they go to smoke and mirrors trying to be relevant.  We are living in the last days of passionate car ownership.


Jack, excellent work; as usual. Here’s hoping those widow makers don’t proliferate. I keep wondering who will get me first (as a motorcyclist); a hammerhead on his phone or an “autonomous car”.  By the way; loved this line:

the implementation of laws that sound like they are keeping companies honest but in practice merely raise the barriers to entry for potential competitors all the way to the troposphere.”


So true!


When the people at MIT started trying to create AI way back in the 60's or so, they realized that the first thing they needed to do was to define what "intelligence" is. They spent at least 20 years trying to create a definition, and were no closer at the end than the beginning. And that is the problem with Artificial Intelligence; we have no idea what intelligence really is, except that it's more than just problem solving. Another example: when computer programmers tried to create expert systems that would emulate the decision-making of an expert in some field they discovered that people don't really think about their decisions or how they arrive at them; we make decisions based on a complex subconcious system that we aren't even aware of.  The only way that autonomous cars will work is if they aren't autonomous, but controlled by a combination of human beings and computers from some central location. 

Advanced Driver
Intermediate Driver

Well Done good article.  I am in the it’s not going to happen for a long time camp.  Algorithms work well solving complicated problems.  Throw enough code at the problem to keep solving all the unintended consequences and it will work Engine control modules come to mind.  However autonomous cars are a complex problem which are much harder to solve. Current Computers do not work well enough to handle a complex and complicated problem (No complex and complicated are not synonymous.).  Will it happen? It’s possible.  It could happen.Go down a rabbit hole hard enough and fast enough and you will find the  bottom.    The question to me is it worth the cost.  Could we use the resources for better things. Like Cleaning up the pollutants in the Oceans. World hunger the senseless repeating cycle of poverty in this country etc.  just seems we could do better than autonomous cars.  Maybe we should revisit Alchemy LOL

Intermediate Driver

Now do electric cars. The problem is not the Motors -those are awesome- or the technology, it's the battery, I can bet a storage container for electric power, with the capacity, ENDURANCE and recharge convenience of a fuel tank is simply impossible. Electrons are inherently unstable, no matter what you do, all they want is to escape away, it's their nature. I'll buy an electric car when one is capable of running the entire 24 heures du Mans either on a single charge or with a 1-minute (being generous) refueling like internal combustion or hybrid cars can. Which will be never.

Pit Crew

I was distracted by that magazine cover. I'd pay real money for a magazine that reviewed UFOs and cameras and told me how to make a gun cabinet all in the same issue. The New Yorker has nothing like those Renaissance men. 

Intermediate Driver

I devoured those kinds of mags in my teens and 20s.  Sadly, they've gone the way of adjusting valve clearances, having the game warden give the NRA Gun Safety Course to the 4th grade class, and memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution.  

Advanced Driver

Just thought I'd point out that the author says "in any significant numbers".  That statement acknowledges it WILL happen.  Just not ever becoming the norm or majority.           Like me, most car guys get really worked up over this subject.  I personally like my cars to go where I point them.  But i'm always surprised by how many young folks who think its a great idea, and want autonomous cars to be available for them to use.


While bureaucracy, litigation and good old human stubbornness will likely conspire to prevent autonomous cars from succeeding on a large scale, do not dismiss technology's potential. Countless achievements we couldn't've imagined in our own youth we take for granted today. Our own technology is now assisting in the advancement of itself. Stephen Hawking predicted AI will be the cause of our demise. His reasoning: it's evolving faster and more efficiently than we can.

Intermediate Driver

Brilliant and insightful, well executed article written by Mr. Baruth. Thank you sir for pointing out the hideous way the charlatans of science find a way to screw up everything in life that is good and honest. Autonomous vehicles are just about the dumbest thing to ever come down the pike. They were science fiction years ago, and they will still be science fiction (in my book) years from now. I must confess, the creators of these vehicles are still watch "The Jetsons" cartoons.  Even so, George would occasionally take hold of the joke stick in his flying car and drive it himself.  


Good luck with all the  backward 'thinking'.  The bar is not perfection.  As soon as self driving cars are safer than the average driver, the roads will be safer.   The average human driver today is not that good. 


The average human driver can make a split second decision to avoid a child in the road and strike a telephone pole. Let me know when a car can do that...


The "average" driver today desperately needs and would love self-driving cars since there too self absorbed or incompetent to control there vehicle anyway.

As Jack said,not likely in our lifetime. 

Btw , best use for any lawyer is to be used as an anchor for an artificial reef.

New Driver

During the decades that I spent my career in computing and related high-tech fields, co-founding several tech-based firms, I watched computational power increase probably millionsfold from the gigantic transistor-based 2nd generation computers of the late 1950's that could only run one tiny 64Kb program at a time to the 100 times more powerful IBM 360s of the 1960s that would fill my current moderately large home and which I used as an information systems director to process all the business applications of a 15,000 employee organization. 


My Samsung smartphone I'm using for this comment is immeasurably more powerful than the supercomputers of just a few decades ago – it's got 32Gb of main memory and 32 Gb of supplemental storage – and it's old. I currently have 11 apps concurrently running plus another 54 Chrome browsing pages... and it could still function as well with triple that.


As a pragmatist, I'm interested in anything that can save our world from its inevitable vehicular gridlock. As a Classic Car Restorer and driver, I'm not interested in seeing highways closed to humans. 


While the tech side in me has repeatedly seen Einstein's recommendation about seeking the impossible to achieve the improbable come true in countless cases, intuitively I think the author is more or less correct in his comment that it won't happen in most of our lifetimes.


Given humanity's ability to create technologies in its own image, I suspect we will be able to continue  to create computational devices that more nearly resemble our finer abilities.


In a short story 'Montage,' by Isaac Asimov in the early 1950s, in which all life finally ended and all stars finally died in the far distant  future, a powerful computer – created in the image of humans – thought on for countless eons and finally said "Let there be light."


We seem to have boundless imagination coupled with near-boundless capabilities. 


However, the natural resistance to turning over something as so much a part of our identity as driving will prolong the process of any sort of driverless cars.


Just as we have little to no control over our own politicians – who are controlled far more by lobbyists than voters – we will also have little control over the total automation of the driving process. Rest assured that whatever happens will be based inevitably on where the money flows.


So, while I think it will eventually be possible to have driverless cars, I think it's well beyond most our own lifetimes before it will happen on a general scale.

Intermediate Driver

Spot on, but it's even deeper than a failure to have strong enough concepts of AI. Rationality is assumed, which means decisions are predicated on hard sensory data.  Problem is that increasingly neurocognitive science supports the idea that perceptions and even the sensory data perceived are actively modulated by high-level cortical processes in order to optimize adaptation to the external world.  In other words, humans know what the brain wants them to know.  We might be unique in that capacity, and it has been hypothesized that this is in fact the seat of "consciousness."  Has to do with a big change in survival priorities when hominins came out of the trees and onto the savannahs a hundred thousand years or so ago.  Developing an AI protocol dependent upon hard sensory data is bound to conflict with the human experience.  The only circumstance in which you might be wrong is if ATLA invests heavily in Level 4 autonomy's support politics, thereby ensuring a lucrative lifetime career for several generations of trial attorneys.  But I doubt the bankers will allow that kind of transfer of wealth and so it ain't gonna happen.  

Pit Crew

Other than having the page crash and reload every time I hit the "show more" button, I really enjoyed this article. Great use of logic to point out the unlikelyhood of this ever happening anytime soon.


Without the elimination of human piloted vehicles.


Between the worshippers of huge government and the environmental extremists, I believe this exactly what the end objective is for many pushing this technology. Like slow boiling a frog, expect them to achieve this with ever increasing taxes, regulations and decreasing speed limits. Do a deep dive into the Vision Zero manifesto if you think I am off base.


You see! If we can't even get a website right, what hope is there for a car that can make a split second determination between striking a telephone pole and a stopped motorcyclist...



The author may not have heard of Hyperloop. A small version will autonomously get him his Burger King order in seconds, and a larger version will autonomously get him from L.A. to New York in minutes. If there are multiple tubes, and vertical tubes, there will be a network of ways to go up and down skyscrapers and mountains at speeds faster than a 6.5 Creedmoor bullet. Since magnetism is used to accelerate, slow down and levitate the transportation capsules, there is no friction. Because there is no air resistance in motion, travel speeds will be like nothing we are currently used to. I will place that bet with the author under one condition. There can be no bipartisanship in government that slow funding for the infrastructure needed to create such a life changing transportation system.


I've absolutely heard of it --- I've also heard of "Warp 9" and I expect them to happen at about the same time 🙂


Ever heard of the "Big Dig?"


The author may not have heard of Hyperloop. A small version will autonomously get him his Burger King order in seconds, and a larger version will autonomously get him from L.A. to New York in minutes. If there are multiple tubes, and vertical tubes, there will be a network of ways to go up and down skyscrapers and mountains at speeds faster than a 6.5 Creedmoor bullet. Since magnetism is used to accelerate, slow down and levitate the transportation capsules, there is no friction. Because there is no air resistance in motion, there will be no opposing forces to slow you down. I will place that bet with the author under one condition. There can be no bipartisanship in government that slow funding for the infrastructure needed to create such a life changing transportation system.

Intermediate Driver

I tend to agree to the claim within your parameters.  As a retired Sr System Analyst working in the IT field from the 1970's, Computers are really dumb....just blinding fast. Now many advancements have been made since I left the IT biz and as it was a JOB and not my life I have not kept up to current events. But I do agree that 100% pure autonomous driving is WAY off......after I am gone and then some.  No unmanned BK trips any time soon. 

Intermediate Driver

Since most new cars are already linked to satellites, a fully autonomous car could easily be controlled (driven) by an outside source.

Miss a car payment and your car will refuse to start

Failure to make the payment in a reasonable time, the car will drive itself to the impound yard.

Maybe some hacker breaks into the system and takes the car for a virtual joyride (with or without you in the car).

Would you ever actually know who really controls the car ?

Think about that.