Elon Musk, one of the wealthiest people on the planet, sent a tweet Thursday night about the real problem with self-driving cars. And as you can probably guess by now, it’s one of those things that sounds profound until you stop to think about it for three seconds. That’s more or less Musk’s brand at this point.
“A major part of real-world AI has to be solved to make unsupervised, generalized full self-driving work, as the entire road system is designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers,” Musk wrote.
What does it mean that the system was designed for “biological neural nets with optical imagers?” That’s a fancy way of saying that our current highway system was designed for human brains and human eyes.
Musk’s sentiment is correct but perhaps painfully obvious in a way that makes it feel like the billionaire is play-acting as a human being. And the underlying assumption of the tweet is that 1) AI cars would be so much easier without these pesky human-centric designs and that 2) the problem with AI in cars isn’t necessarily the technology in the cars. The problem, as Musk wants to suggest, is the technology that’s surrounding the cars, or the infrastructure that’s allowed our entire way of driving to take place over the past century.
Why is Musk tweeting something like this out into the world? Perhaps because he needs to place blame elsewhere in the wake of so many damning reports about his car company Tesla. Musk has received widespread criticism for Tesla’s promotion of a feature called AutoPilot, which is supposed to allow semi-autonomous driving.
AutoPilot isn’t intended to allow fully autonomous driving, if you believe Tesla’s lawyers, but you don’t have to look too far to find people testing the limits of AutoPilot. Videos have gone viral of people riding in Teslas while no one is in the driver’s seat, as you’ve almost certainly seen by now. But people have died with AutoPilot engaged, with the most recent example being two people in Texas where the fire department had to call Tesla for advice because the fire burned for over four hours. Firefighters used over 30,000 gallons of water to put out the blaze, which kept reigniting because of the car’s batteries. Tesla denies that no one was driving, despite what local authorities say, but an investigation is underway.
Ironically, what Musk is more or less arguing in his latest tweet is antithetical to his actual talents. Musk is widely seen in popular culture as a visionary with good ideas and weak follow-through. His “mass transit” ideas like the Hyperloop are a great example of that. In 2013, Musk unveiled his idea for a vehicle system in a vacuum tube that could travel at 600 miles per hour. And he shared that idea with the world hoping someone would make it. But it turns out the difficult thing about creating a high-speed mass transit system isn’t the tech, it’s the politics and the land rights, something I pointed out at the time, even before Musk officially announced his idea.
Musk would love to rip up the highway system and build something that was easier for his Tesla cars to identify and drive on safely. But that’s not the problem that confronts him. That’d be like robot manufacturers demanding that all new buildings only have one-floor and no stairs because most human-style robots have difficulty climbing up stairs. The old Darpa Robotics Challenge had real-world obstacles for a reason. We want robots to adapt to our world, we don’t want to change our world to make the robots more comfortable. As journalist Kelsey Atherton put it, “Tech interprets humans as flawed and seeks to route around them.”
But none of this is new. Darpa tried to make a completely autonomous car in the 1980s but it kept getting confused by snow on the road at their test track outside of Denver. Darpa didn’t say, “okay, well, we need to stop it from snowing Colorado and then it will be perfect.” They recognized that they hadn’t cracked the puzzle yet.
The problem, if Musk would like to continue down this path of autonomous driving in the real world, is to make something for our current roads that his cars can drive on safely. If he’d like to build a safer transportation system from he ground up, he should invest in monorails. Or, better yet, he can dig a tunnel and build something that would truly blow our minds.
Musk promised us the latter in places like Chicago and Las Vegas, but all we got was a Tesla with human drivers moving slowly in a tunnel. When he’s given endless possibilities with a new terrain, he simply falls back on old habits. But it all makes sense. Musk is fundamentally a businessman, not a visionary.