Driverless taxis are about to be a thing in Phoenix

While I’ve been shouting myself hoarse from the rooftops for years trying to warn you people about this, my efforts were apparently for naught. If you’re familiar with Waymo, you probably know that it’s one of the companies that have been working to develop and deploy fully driverless car technology. They’re certainly not the only ones, but definitely among the earliest adopters. Despite all of the misgivings some of us may feel about it, the company announced last week that they were going to leave the testing phase of development and make their driverless taxis available to the public in Phoenix, Arizona. Do I really need to add in the obvious final comment? What could possibly go wrong?

Beginning today, October 8, we’re excited to open up our fully driverless offering to Waymo One riders. Members of the public service can now take friends and family along on their rides and share their experience with the world. We’ll start with those who are already a part of Waymo One and, over the next several weeks, welcome more people directly into the service through our app (available on Google Play and the App Store). In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless. We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand. Later this year, after we’ve finished adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and the rear passenger cabin for in-vehicle hygiene and safety, we’ll also be re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area.

At this point, the clock is already ticking. You know that nothing is foolproof in this world and as other companies found out, accidents happen. Sometimes with tragic results, as Uber discovered. The woman who has gone down in history as the first pedestrian to be killed by a driverless car died in Tempe, Arizona, not all that far from where Waymo launched their service. (What is it about these companies that makes them seem to have some sort of vendetta against Arizona?)

Hey, you don’t need to listen to me about this, I guess. I’m just an old man shouting and the clouds and waving a flamethrower so the pesky kids won’t pilot their driverless cars onto my lawn. I suppose this was inevitable and it will only grow more and more common over time. I’d like to say that it makes no difference to me because I’ll never get in one of those things. I’ll stick with a human driver, thank you very much. But that doesn’t address the question of the fact that more and more of these driverless vehicles will be sharing the road with the rest of us. So what happens when either the software fails, hackers take one of them over or the artificial intelligence wakes up and decides to send every one of those cars into an immediate ninety-degree turn and it’s your normal car that’s in its direct path?

Speaking of hackers, this news came out at almost the same time that I saw a related item. Clever hackers have recently figured out yet another way to trick driverless cars and no amount of security in the vehicle’s onboard computer would be able to stop it. (Wired)

Researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev have spent the last two years experimenting with those “phantom” images to trick semi-autonomous driving systems. They previously revealed that they could use split-second light projections on roads to successfully trick Tesla’s driver-assistance systems into automatically stopping without warning when its camera sees spoofed images of road signs or pedestrians. In new research, they’ve found they can pull off the same trick with just a few frames of a road sign injected on a billboard’s video. And they warn that if hackers hijacked an internet-connected billboard to carry out the trick, it could be used to cause traffic jams or even road accidents while leaving little evidence behind.

What they’re talking about are flashing road signs and electronic billboards, so it’s both old and new technology. We’ve all seen the stories of how these signs have been hacked to display hilarious messages about “zombies ahead” and the like. But now, particularly when it comes to the newest LED billboards, hackers could make them display an image of a stop sign or a pedestrian dashing toward the road. The image would only need to be up for a fraction of a second, but that’s been enough for some driverless cars to react, slamming on the brakes or swerving out of its lane.

But hey… don’t let me dissuade you. Hop on in and enjoy the ride.

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David Strom 8:01 AM on March 27, 2023