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On The Rancorous Controversy Over Dedicating Freeway Lanes Expressly For Autonomous Vehicles Such As AI Self-Driving Cars

We have all sorts of dedicated lanes these days on our freeways and highways.

The ubiquitous carpool lane has been around for many years. As you know, the core idea is that people will be voluntarily nudged to ride together in a car rather than each using a car individually. That’s the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) concept in contrast to the Low Occupancy Vehicle (LOV) approach.

The justification for carpooling is pretty straightforward.

By having more riders in each car it is naturally presumed that there will be a lesser total number of cars on the roadway. This is simple math.

Whereas four people might be riding in one car due to carpooling, they could have been driving four separate cars if left to their own devices. Miraculously, you’ve then reduced the volume of cars by a huge margin, going down from a count of four vehicles to merely accounting for that one vehicle on the freeway or highway. Multiply this out by the thousands upon thousands of individual drivers that might have gotten behind the wheel. The scaling factor is significant, for which the reduction in the count of cars is astounding when essentially repacking people into a fewer number of vehicles.

In theory, this translates into less congestion.

Less congestion presumably implies faster speeds and less stop-and-go traffic. People get to their destinations sooner than they would otherwise. Furthermore, those people are less exasperated and less frustrated about having traversed the roadways. There is something to be said about the consternation that arises from being stuck in traffic jams. It can ruin the rest of your entire day and spill over into your work life and your private life.

There is a slew of additional benefits associated with reducing the number of cars on the roadways.

One aspect entails reducing pollution emissions.

A conventional ICE (internal combustion engine) car produces various pollutants, even despite the numerous smog control features built into modern-day vehicles. Fewer cars on the roads mean less pollution generated. Less time on the roads due to lessened congestion means less pollution produced too. It is a win-win.

Another aspect involves roadway surface wear-and-tear.

Cars are pretty rough on the roadways. We all can daily see the results. There are potholes aplenty. The roads are replete with cracks, loose gravel, tire marks, and get worn down over time. This in turn can impact your travel efforts. An everyday drive can become bumpy and possibly dangerous. In addition, cars get damaged via those darned potholes. Fewer cars on the roadways mean less stress and ordinary usage upon those vaunted surfaces.

I don’t think you probably need much more convincing about the values of carpooling.

Of course, when you are on a freeway that has a carpool lane, and if you are not eligible to use the carpool lane, you might have a different opinion at that moment about the perceived value of a lane dedicated for that sole purpose.

We’ve all been sitting in traffic that is adjacent to carpool lanes. The traffic we are faced with as solo drivers can be miserably sluggish. Meanwhile, the carpool lane is zipping along with ease. You watch that speedy pace and lament that the carpool lane is there.

In your mind, you might generally agree that a carpool lane is a handy concept. Nonetheless, if the carpool lane appears to be sparsely used, you begin to think twice about why that dedicated lane exists. You are sure that if that lane was reassigned for conventional traffic, the result would be to reduce the sluggishness you are currently in the midst of.

Seeing a nearly empty carpool lane can be highly maddening. We all get the notion that it is intended for a good purpose and done with the sincerest of hopes. This altruistic viewpoint though comes to the fore when you are crawling along next to the dedicated lane and can clearly observe that it is being vastly underutilized. As such, you doubt that the reasoned basis is valid in light of the reality that you are experiencing.

Aha, some would retort. You are feeling the pain because you are not abiding by the carpool lane aspirations. Rather than thinking in a narrow fashion that the dedicated lane is being misappropriated, you ought to instead be dinging yourself for not aiming to be a carpool using rider. Stop complaining, get your act together, and get more people into your car (or, stop using your car and get into someone else’s car).

Ouch, that stings.

The counterargument to that retort is that the person is perhaps in a circumstance of life that makes participating in a carpool prohibitive. Maybe the person is having to drive from place to place for their work efforts and cannot consolidate into one vehicle. Lots of reasons that seem justifiable are floated about why someone is unable to reasonably undertake to carpool.

Excuses, excuses, excuses, the other side says.

You can create excuses all day long. In the end, we have to force people into deciding which is more important to them. They can either take a chance by remaining as a solo driver, which means being unable to use the carpool lane, or they can rearrange their lives so that they can use a carpool and glean the advantages thereof.

In that sense of things, a dedicated lane is oftentimes a form of reward or possibly punishment in a gambit of trying to shape or reshape human behavior.

It goes like this.

Society wants you to carpool, ostensibly for the various reasons earlier listed. Society will not impose upon you a legal requirement that you must carpool. You are free to choose whether to carpool or not. If you do carpool, you get a nifty reward, namely that you can use the carpool lane and garner all those handy benefits thereof. If you don’t carpool, you won’t have those benefits, and in fact, you are somewhat being punished, due to being relegated to the non-dedicated lanes and the possibility of enduring onerous traffic woes.

I realize it is somewhat outlandish to suggest that the dedicated lane is both a form of reward and a form of punishment. Some would say that it is only a rewards-based approach. They would contend that any “punishment” is entirely of your own doing. The dedicated lane is not somehow harming you per se, it is only there to be beneficial to you and all of society.

A contrarian would argue that there is abundantly a punishment involved. That dedicated lane was potentially an existing lane that was repurposed as a dedicated lane. In that case, you have taken away something from those other drivers. You are punishing them by removing an available lane. This in turn is assuredly going to make traffic worse for them.

Even if the dedicated lane was made from scratch, and thus it wasn’t taken away from the existing roadway, it still is a form of punishment when set aside for dedicated purposes. Here’s why. The new lane could have been used by everyone. Instead, society is restricting the use of the lane. That is decidedly a kind of punishment to other drivers. The added lane could have been beneficial to all drivers, yet it is being focused on just a selected set.

These tit-for-tat arguments are nearly endless and apply to all variants of dedicated lanes.

You can for example say the same thing about bus lanes. A roadway that has a dedicated lane for busses is just as susceptible to the same pro and con arguments as does the carpool lane.

Yes, a bus carries more passengers than a car. Yes, a bus is in theory a more efficient and effective form of transportation than a car. But, we can also note that a dedicated lane for a bus is something that is acting as a reward toward those that use buses, and a kind of penalty or punishment towards those that do not do so.

Toll lanes are another such example.

The creation of toll lanes bring forth added points of contention. A toll lane usually involves a cost for those that use the lane. You pay a fee of one kind or another. Assuming there are no other restrictions or rules about the toll lane, it comes down to money as the key criterion.

That might seem on the face of things to be a fair measure. You either are willing to pay to use the toll lane, or you are not. Unlike a carpool lane, you don’t need to change your behavior per se. You don’t need to share a ride with someone else. All you need to do is plunk down some dough.

There is though a problem on that end too.

Some decry that toll lanes are predominantly beneficial for those that have money. If you are poor, you aren’t readily able to use the toll lanes. Those toll lanes become dedicated lanes that are saying you are rewarded if you have money, and you are seemingly being punished if you don’t have money (punished in the sense that you won’t be able to use those lanes).

That is eschewed as elitist or at least biased against those in certain socioeconomic categories. There are lots of counterarguments, such as suggesting that the toll lanes might not exist at all except for the fact that people are willing to pay to use them. How else can the toll lanes be put into place? The money has to come from someplace. And so on.

One supposes that the most noticeable outcry about dedicated lanes arises when those lanes are sparsely used.

If you are driving along and not able to use a dedicated lane, you are witness to one of two momentary aspects about the dedicated lane, denoted broadly as either robust use versus bleak use. You might observe that the dedicated lane is being actively used and seems to be fulfilling whatever intention or purpose it claims to have. That would fit into the robust use category. Or you might notice that the dedicated lane has almost no vehicles in it and seems to be wasted space. That’s the bleak use classification.

In the use case of the dedicated lane seemingly actively in use and labeled as robustness, you can still feel hurt that you aren’t able to use it, but you have to (begrudgingly) admit that the darned thing is being used. You can grumble about the lane. You can whine about the lane. Your own eyes tell you though that the lane is being leveraged.

On the other hand, your blood comes to a boil when a dedicated lane is virtually empty. This is especially beguiling if the other lanes of traffic are all boxed in. In your mind’s eye, you envision that the lane could be the reliever for the traffic bottlenecks that you are suffering in. An unused dedicated lane seems to be an utter boondoggle and showcases the grandiose err of the ways of mankind.

A typical response to that kind of bemoaning is that the dedicated lane is perhaps being unfairly judged. Your microscopic glimpse of the use is based on those few minutes that you are driving alongside the dedicated lane. Perhaps overall statistics indicate that the dedicated lane is used quite a bit, and your perception is mistaken by having merely witnessed a brief instance of desolation.

Statistics are hard to swallow though when you can see the dedicated lane with your own eyes and know in your heart of hearts about what you believe that you saw (that’s a tongue twister).

Why all this discussion and recounting of the debates about dedicated lanes?

Because we have a new entrant that is earnestly eyeing the notion of having dedicated lanes.

Self-driving cars.

There are proponents for self-driving cars that are clamoring for the use of dedicated lanes that would be set aside specifically for self-driving cars.

By and large, the notion is that only self-driving cars could ride in those lanes. Some pundits would also be willing to include ground-based Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) of any shape or size, such as self-driving trucks, self-driving buses, and so on. For ease of discussion herein, let’s go with the simpler core case of being dedicated to self-driving cars (though, acknowledging that a variant involves being a dedicated lane for a wider array of AVs, of which the same general principles still apply).

This necessitates providing a bit of helpful background for you about self-driving or driverless cars.

In brief, the future of cars consists of AI-based true self-driving cars. There isn’t a human driver involved in a true self-driving car. Keep in mind that true self-driving cars are driven via an AI driving system. There isn’t a need for a human driver at the wheel, and nor is there a provision for a human to drive the vehicle. For my extensive and ongoing coverage of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here.

Here’s an intriguing question that is worth pondering: What controversy might there be about having dedicated lanes devoted to the advent of AI-based true self-driving cars?

I’d like to first further clarify what is meant when I refer to true self-driving cars.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Dedicated Lanes

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can.

Why is this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient?

Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet.

With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system won’t natively somehow “know” about the facets of driving. Driving and all that it entails will need to be programmed as part of the hardware and software of the self-driving car.

Let’s dive into the myriad of aspects that come to play on this topic.

There is an ongoing clamor that we ought to establish dedicated lanes for self-driving cars.

Why so?

One basis for seeking dedicated lanes is ostensibly due to a technological deficiency and being unable to sufficiently attain suitably capable self-driving cars.

Here’s the rub.

Getting self-driving cars to operate on public roadways is relatively straightforward, as long as you are willing to toss aside all of the usual complexities that entail being on open roads. Imagine a world in which there weren’t any of those pesky pedestrians that might opt to foolishly jaywalk. Imagine a world in which human drivers were entirely out of the way and never pestered a self-driving car. Etc.

The moment that you bring all of those complications into the picture, the advent of self-driving cars is potentially going to be stymied. Developing an AI driving system that can cope with the myriad of wild and crazy antics that can happen on our public roadways is a humongous uphill battle. Some believe we will never be able to overcome that hurdle (see my coverage about edge cases and the long-tail problem at the link here).

If we had self-driving cars running only on private closed tracks that prohibited any of the vagaries of the real world, we probably would not find much value in having self-driving cars. The real trick is to figure out how to devise AI driving systems that can handle the same real-world driving that human drivers contend with on an everyday basis.

Okay, given that we are still beyond the reach of that vaunted goal, some point out that we could constrain the real world to make things easier for these less-than-ideal self-driving cars. Voila, set up dedicated lanes that only self-driving cars could utilize.

In short, if self-driving cars can’t yet handle the real world, readapt the real world to fit what self-driving cars can do.

The creation of dedicated lanes for self-driving cars would reduce the complexity that the AI driving systems have to deal with. In theory, once in a dedicated lane, the only considerations are dealing with the lane and other self-driving cars.

We could presumably get the self-driving cars to cooperate with each other via appropriate programming of the AI. In addition, it is already anticipated that self-driving cars will communicate electronically with each other via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) capabilities. As such, while cruising along in a dedicated lane, the AI driving systems would be conveying traffic-related messaging to each other on the V2V feature.

Wait for a second, some say, why rush to get self-driving cars onto the public roadways if they aren’t fully capable?

The usual answer is that self-driving cars offer great promise that we might wish to exploit sooner rather than later. It is hoped that self-driving cars will dramatically reduce the number of car crashes and car crash-related injuries and fatalities that occur each year. Do keep in mind that there are about 2.5 million car crashes annually in the United States alone and produce sadly about 1.2 million injuries and some 40,000 fatalities (see my analysis of driving stats at the link here).

For each year and each day that we aren’t using self-driving cars, the assertion is that we are allowing those car crashes and related injuries and fatalities to continue to mount up, even though we could be doing something constructive to prevent them. Using self-driving cars in dedicated lanes would be one step toward that rather compassionate goal.

There is a slew of additional benefits expected once we have self-driving cars aplenty. Indeed, there is a mantra that we will enter into a mobility-for-all era. The concept is that those today that find themselves mobility disadvantaged will finally have an opportunity to use mobility that otherwise has been prohibitive to access. See my discussion on those aspects at the link here.

Alright, you can plainly see that the dedicated lanes would be a form of stopgap that could enable self-driving cars to nearly immediately be put into active use. Furthermore, giving self-driving cars those specially dedicated lanes would reduce the complexities facing self-driving cars and essentially protect them from the rest of the real world.

Not so fast, the counterarguments go.

How would these self-driving cars get onto those dedicated lanes? Presumably, the self-driving cars would have to make their way to the entry onramps, which means they would be likely driving in open-ended areas such as neighborhoods and communities. You can’t just have a self-driving magically appear at an onramp out of thin air.

One reply to that concern is that perhaps self-driving cars would be parked at the edge of a freeway or highway that had a self-driving car’s dedicated lane. You would get into a self-driving car at that spot and it would whisk you down the highway while only using the special purpose dedicated lane. Upon arriving at some designated exit point, the self-driving car would once again go to a parking lot that was directly adjacent to the highway. This would then ensure that the self-driving cars were only using the dedicated lanes and not having to contend with open-ended driving conditions.

A bellowing objection to this scenario is that we already have something that does just exactly what has been described.

It is a thing called a train.

Yes, trains have train stations that you use to get into and out of the train. The trains go along on laid out and fixed-in-place tracks.

You are essentially recreating a train by using self-driving cars in this equivalent manner. Meanwhile, a train has the advantage that it takes a lot of people all at once as a form of transit, while a car is not even close to that kind of efficiency.

The retort to that reply is that you have to be willing to start somewhere in terms of using self-driving cars on our public roadways. Sure, at first they are going to be used as though they are comparable to trains in the sense of only going from and to predetermined fixed points. The hope and belief are that eventually the AI driving systems will catch up with the dreamy aspirations and we will then be able to let loose the self-driving cars so that they go beyond just those dedicated lanes.

Around and around we go on these heated debates.

As an additional taste, there are many more monkey wrenches involved.

For example, suppose that there were these dedicated lanes for self-driving cars and we proceed to make use of them.

How would we prevent human-driven cars from intervening?

You might have to build the dedicated lanes in a manner that physically precluded any interlopers, but this is assuredly an extraordinarily costly proposition. Do we want to spend our precious highway dollars on that kind of a singular purpose lane?

Well, perhaps we might just put up signs that tell human drivers that they cannot use those self-driving dedicated lanes. We could impose hefty fines for those human drivers that dared to interject themselves into the self-driving lanes. Yes, that might help, but you can imagine that those rules would still be flouted by some and we could end up with quite a mess on our highways and freeways accordingly.

Here’s yet another twist.

Some worry that if we did implement dedicated lanes for self-driving cars at this time, it is as though we are tossing in the towel about their existent technological lack of prowess. We are saying that even though self-driving cars are decidedly not up to snuff in terms of driving on our public roadways, we are going to use them anyway, albeit in a limited fashion via being restricted to using just those dedicated lanes.

Here’s why that generates a sour face.

This might reduce the urgency of pressure on the automakers and self-driving tech firms about seeking to make true self-driving cars. The AI developers might choose to ease off that important goal. In short, the impetus toward gaining true self-driving cars would potentially be woefully undercut.

This ironically then does the opposite of what it is said that the dedicated lanes were going to achieve. Rather than spurring the advent of self-driving cars, it might downshift the rushing forward momentum. We could then have a dour and inadvertently adverse consequence of stretching out the time toward true self-driving cars and not meanwhile gleaning many benefits in return.

Dizzying!

Conclusion

This is one of those topics that has numerous layers upon layers of potential unpacking.

One viewpoint is that perhaps at first we might have dedicated lanes for self-driving cars because of technological weaknesses and then, over time, find that self-driving cars have been improved immensely by AI developers as the technology gets improved. At that point, the dedicated lanes have an entirely different significance.

No longer are the dedicated lanes there to make things easier for self-driving cars. Instead, the dedicated lanes are there to allow self-driving cars to run smoothly and avoid the idiocy and foibles of human drivers.

You see, the AI driving systems of that sophistication can cope with human drivers nearby, but it is best to not have them have to do so.

The dedicated lanes become express lanes. They are express-oriented due to the self-driving cars cooperating with each other and ergo aiming to streamline the use of the lane.

We can add more to this matter.

Society might want to encourage people to use self-driving cars. This could seem surprising to you since many believe that everyone will want to use self-driving cars. That is yet to be seen (see my analysis at this link here). We might have a vast segment of society that eschews using self-driving cars. It could be that they don’t trust self-driving cars. It could be that they insist on driving and don’t want to let some machine do the driving for them. And so on.

If self-driving cars had dedicated lanes, it would be the same type of reward as there is for today’s carpool lanes. By using a self-driving car, you as a passenger are being rewarded by being able to zoom along in a dedicated lane. Those that aren’t using self-driving cars are somewhat being “punished” because they would not be able to use those dedicated lanes.

As a final remark for now on this entangled debate about dedicated lanes for self-driving cars envision a future in which self-driving cars are widely in use. They are daily in your neighborhood and taking kids to school and giving lifts to those that want to visit a local park or go to the grocery store. They are nearly ubiquitous.

When you get onto a freeway and are driving your human-driven conventional car, here’s what might happen.

It turns out that nearly all of the lanes are for self-driving cars and there is only just one paltry designated lane for human-driven cars. The dedicated lane is solely for human-driven cars. That lane is always jam-packed and goes at a snail’s pace. For those that keep insisting on driving a car, they are now relegated to the bottom of the totem pole, as it were.

Society has thusly reached a point that it won’t ban people from driving cars, but will make the driving experience so atrocious and bogged down that the message is being said loud and clear. You ought to stop your stubborn desire to drive and join everyone else in using self-driving cars.

That type of future is darned hard to envision at this time. There are drivers today that insist they will only give up their driving when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

Some believe that future generations will have an entirely different outlook, being more avidly dedicated to the advent of self-driving cars.

Which lane are you in?