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Our driverless car future
Aug 22, 2023
Episode 988

Our driverless car future

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Are we there yet?

Robotaxis Cruise and Waymo recently scored a big win when California regulators allowed them to expand their services and begin charging fares in San Francisco. But now the self-driving taxi companies are hitting some speedbumps.

“What is happening in San Francisco is that these cars, while they’re doing a pretty good job of driving people around, they seem to keep getting into trouble,” said Joann Muller, a transportation reporter for Axios.

Robotaxis have been causing traffic jams, colliding with fire trucks and one even got stuck in cement. So what does this all mean for our driverless car future?

On the show today: Muller explains where we’re at with self-driving technology, why all eyes are on San Francisco, and who will make the rules of the road as robotaxi companies grow. Plus, the human-to-human connection that driverless cars are missing.

Then, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo is the next cabinet member in line for a trip to China. We’ll get into why the visit might be a little tense. And, some Americans are finding creative avenues to homeownership in spite of an unfavorable housing market.

Later, our listeners recommend some summer reads. And, this week’s answer to the Make Me Smart question comes from Mark Clouse, President and CEO of Campbell’s Soup.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

We want to hear your answer to the Make Me Smart question. You can reach us at makemesmart@marketplace.org or leave us a voicemail at 508-U-B-SMART.

Make Me Smart August 22, 2023 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kai Ryssdal 

Amazing, I say it and it happens. It’s almost like I’m in charge. Hi everybody I’m Kai Ryssdal. Welcome back to Make Me Smart. We’re none of us is as smart as all of us.

Reema Khrais 

Hello, everyone, I’m Reema Khrais in for Kimberly Adams, thank you for joining us. It is Tuesday, August 22, which means it is time for the weekly deep dive. Today we’re talking about something that has been in the news a lot this last week, I find it all very fascinating. I’m excited to learn more about it. We are talking about the state of self-driving cars.

Kai Ryssdal

Where things stand, where they might be going, why this is so hard, what’s going on in San Francisco, all those things. We’re going to talk about it. We’re Joann Muller, she covers the future of transportation at Axios. Joann, welcome to the pod.

Joann Muller

Well, thank you. Good to be here.

Kai Ryssdal

All right. So on a scale of we’re just getting started with self-driving, and we’re all going to be in self-driving cars. Where are we on that spectrum? Beginning or end?

Joann Muller 

Well, overall, definitely at the beginning. But if you are living in San Francisco or Phoenix right now, this is reality, you can go and ride in a self-driving car today.

Reema Khrais

Hmm. Well, San Francisco, it’s been the ground zero for this experiment. You know, California regulators have recently allowed these robotaxi companies to expand their operations in the city. And I have not been seeing the most promising headlines. But can you just explain like what is going on over there?

Joann Muller

Sure. Well, so these cars have been tested in San Francisco really, for several years now. Because it’s a good city to try this technology out. It’s it’s a it’s a small city, but it’s very dense. There’s a lot of traffic, there’s, you know, hills and crazy intersections, lots of pedestrians and so forth. So basically, these these car companies or tech companies, as it may be, have said, “Boy, if we can make it in San Francisco, we can make it anywhere.” And so that is why everything has been happening in San Francisco. So just recently, as you mentioned, the California state regulators allowed two companies, a Waymo, which is a unit of Alphabet, or Google. And also Cruise, which is the self-driving division of General Motors to both now charge fares for robotaxi rides around the city, pretty much all day long. They had some restrictions before. So there’s nobody in the vehicle. It’s just the passenger. And what is happening in San Francisco is that these cars, while they’re doing a pretty good job of driving people around, they seem to keep getting into trouble. And in particular, the fire department out there is pretty upset about this because these cars keep wandering into fire scenes. They ran over fire hoses, for instance, one just the other day one of them got into a crash with a fire truck that was coming through a red light and came into oncoming traffic. And, you know, this is obviously not good. There’s even a case where a robotaxi from Cruise rolled into a construction zone and came to a stop in wet cement, which I think is kind of a metaphor. Exactly.

Kai Ryssdal 

There’s a metaphor there somewher. So but but look. Well. So you talked about if they can make it in San Francisco, they can make it anywhere? Clearly, they can’t make it in San Francisco.

Joann Muller 

Well, look, you know, there are serious problems. Yes. And this is why the state has now said you know, we just gave you that permit. But now we’d like you to cut back by 50% of the size of your fleet until we get a better handle on this. But you got to keep it in perspective, too, right? Because there’s like 40, 43 thousand people killed every year in traffic accidents. And if we can cut that even in half, by having self-driving cars that don’t drive drunk, they don’t get tired. They obey all the traffic laws. You know, that’s that that’s progress to a lot of people. Now, in fairness, what’s happening right now in San Francisco is these cars are under a microscope. So every little thing they do wrong is going to get a lot of attention. And that’s not a bad thing. We need to know who we’re sharing the road with.

Reema Khrais 

Mm hmm. It’s interesting because there’s clearly a lot of tension between this kind of technology and just the reality of our infrastructure, right, you know, we operate and exist in a very human centric road system. How will our infrastructure need to change to accommodate a lot more self-driving vehicles?

Joann Muller 

Well, there’s a question over whether it actually will change. You know, in San Francisco, this assumption is that they can just fold these cars into the normal traffic. There are a few instances, though, where, you know, the self driving car needs to know where the safe pull off spot is to pick you up, for instance, I’ll tell you a story I rode in a Cruise, robotaxi in San Francisco some months ago, I think it was November, probably last time I was out there. And I called the car from the app, I was staying at a hotel, that the driveway of the hotel was like, you know, sort of one of these U shaped arcs and I thought, oh, like, like my Uber driver, that car will probably come in here. And then I realized, maybe it won’t, actually. So I better go stand out on the street. Well, along comes the car and drove right by me by about 20 or 30 feet. And it turns out that that is the designated spot for that particular hotel, in the cars mind, that’s where it was trained to stop, it wasn’t trained to stop where the person is standing, it was trained to stop at a particular place. So these are going to be issues like curb management is going to be an issue, right? And all these places. Well, there is some discussion about whether we should have designated lanes for autonomous vehicles. And I live out in Detroit. And there’s a there’s a company that’s working on that right now, that would be sort of an autonomous vehicle corridor. And the advantage of that is that these cars are staying in the same lane, they can go at the same speed, which means they’re almost like a convoy, they can travel really close together. And it’s almost like a train of cars. And you can move people more quickly, allegedly. But that’s not ready for primetime yet, either. There’s a lot of research to go. So in the meantime, you have humans sharing the road with robotaxis. And that’s where we’re starting to run into a few problems.

Kai Ryssdal 

Joann who gets to decide what the rules are? Is it like city by city? Is it going to be a state thing? Are there going to be federal regulations?

Joann Muller 

This is a great question. So the federal government does not have any regulations on autonomous vehicles. There’s been a lot of efforts in Congress to pass some sort of legislation, but it keeps, keeps getting bogged down on questions about, you know, who’s liable if there’s, if there’s a lawsuit. There’s cybersecurity issues that, you know, lobbyists are getting involved in. And so it’s been four years that they’ve been kicking this down the road. And it’s it’s not really happening. So what you’re left with is a patchwork of state regulations. And I think it’s about 30 states now would allow self driving cars to be tested and even deployed. But it’s really as much smaller handful, literally where they’re actually happening right now. So California certainly is one Arizona, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, those are kind of the leading states on this. Nevada to I’m sorry, I left off Nevada. So you could go to Las Vegas now. And you can order up a robotaxi, it still has our human behind the wheel at the moment. But that probably won’t last forever.

Reema Khrais 

I want to circle back to something you mentioned or alluded to earlier, it’s something I’ve been thinking about, which is just how easy it is for these companies to lose massive amounts of trust among the public with one single bad event. And you know, clearly there are significant very significant problems that need to be addressed. But generally, I think we as humans accept a greater amount of risk with cars operated by humans than we do for cars operated by robots. Like if, if I were to go to the grocery store this afternoon, I know there’s a chance I might get into an accident. Whereas with a robotaxi, there might be an expectation that I’m 100% safe. Anyway, I’m just genuinely curious to get your thoughts on this difference and tolerance and how it went might play out as we potentially embrace these vehicles even more.

Joann Muller 

Yeah, well, it’s such a good question, right? So we have this intuition. You know, you come to an intersection, you can make eye contact with the other driver, you can gesture with your finger, just one finger on the wheel, lets them know, okay, I’m gonna let you go ahead. There’s this, this understanding, and sort of a predictive nature in the human brain that is a little bit harder to do with a robot, like the robots can be trained to see really well. And they might actually see things that you and I don’t see. But it’s that intuition about what the other person the other car, the other drunk drivers going to do. Where it’s, it’s a little bit more difficult. So in the case of this crash with the fire truck, for instance, in San Francisco the other day, the the robotaxi is in the proper lane going straight, but a a fire truck, decides to go around traffic, and come into oncoming traffic to get through a red light. And, you know, if if there was a driver, the fire truck driver and the and the person in the car might have been able to acknowledge what was happening. But in this case, the robo taxi did not. You know, there’ll be an investigation into why that happened. But there’s that missing human to human brain connection.

Reema Khrais 

Yeah, this is also interesting. Joanne Mueller is a transportation reporter for Axios this was really great. Thanks so much for coming on Joann. Thanks.

Joann Muller 

Oh, thank you.

Kai Ryssdal 

Thanks a bunch. Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know. Will I, will I, will I ride in one? Yes. Will I be nervous also? Yes. But then, you know, I mean, you know, by the time you know, 20 years from now, it’s gonna be like nothing.

Reema Khrais 

I think so. It’s a strange time. We’re like in the in between phase, right? Where there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of money, a lot of promise, which is the case, you know, has the potential to create huge societal change. And so it’s not surprising that it’s this this disruptive. The are going to be tensions.

Kai Ryssdal 

Totally, totally. All right. Well, look, let us know how you think and feel about robotaxis. Would you ride in one would you not? Are we ahead of our time? Who knows? Let us know our number is 508-827-6278. 508-U-B-SMART is how you can do that if you feel like spelling it out, email us at makemesmart@marketplace.org. We are coming right back.

Reema Khrais 

All right, let’s do some news. All right. You want to go first?

Kai Ryssdal 

I will go first because mine’s a quickie actually. It’s it’s on the face of it. It’s quite new. But but if you think about it, it’s it’s a little longer. So the Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo is going to China. That news became official, either yesterday or today I forget exactly when here’s the catch. So this is now the fourth Biden administration cabinet level official. Right. You had Blinken, you had Secretary Yellen and the trip that I went on. You had John Kerry, the climate ambassador, who kind of got slapped around by the Chinese to be honest with you. And now you have Raimondo all trying to in Yellen’s word, “set a floor under this relationship,” the relationship between the two biggest economies in the world which is all well and good. Here’s the problem Raimondo is going to have a much harder time because number one, she’s fourth down the chute right so it never gets easier. But number two this visit and remember she’s responsible for the chips act and all of that high tech investment that the United States government wants to make in American infrastructure for semiconductors. But it also comes after the Biden administration, in the last couple of weeks, put that new executive order in place about outbound investments, which is going to limit how much private equity and hedge funds can invest and what kinds of investments they can make in certain sectors of the Chinese economy, things with military applications, AI, quantum computing, those kinds of things. And I will just tell you, based on my reporting trip over there with Secretary Yellen, the Chinese are PO’d about this, and it is going to be really hard for Raimondo took him out of there with a positive sort of result. I don’t know what there’s going to be any, you know, joint statement or communique or what have you. But, but it’s going to be kind of challenging, I think. And so that’s, that’s my news item.

Reema Khrais 

That’ll be interesting to see how it, how it unfolds. I should say. I actually didn’t tell you this. I loved your reporting in China. I meant to message you afterwards. Yeah. Love that conversation you had with Jennifer.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, she was she was she you know, she’s a subject matter matter expert. She was she was and she came up to Beijing for it. It was great. It was super fun. Yeah.

Reema Khrais 

It was fun to listen to. Alright, so my news item. It is about housing. So we got the monthly existing home sale numbers today. Which I think yeah, it’s on the show today. In case you are wondering, sales are down, it is not a fun time right now to be shopping for a house. So I saw two related articles this morning, one in The Wall Street Journal, one in The Washington Post that I think helped paint the picture of just how people are feeling. So first, The Wall Street Journal, the article is titled, “Goodbye bathtub and living room.” It’s about how more Americans are embracing smaller homes because, well because they have to, especially with mortgage rates being so high right now. Average rate on a 30-year fixed home loan reached over 7% last week. So the highest it’s been in a really long time, as we’ve reported on. So this article talks about how builders are having to make homes they build more affordable for potential buyers. And also just because construction costs are getting more expensive. So yeah, one way they’re doing that is by shrinking the home. There’s some interesting stats in here. The article points out that since 2018, the average unit size for new housing starts has decreased 10% to 2400 square feet, which is interesting. Yeah, I think they had an example in Seattle. The homes they’re 18% smaller than they were five years ago. So builders are axing, yeah, what were you gonna say?

Kai Ryssdal 

Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because we have been building ever larger houses in this country for a very, very long time, right? If you look at average size of houses from like, 50 years ago, and then today, my guess would be we’re probably 1000, maybe 2000 square feet bigger. And look, all of that takes more resources to build, it takes more energy to heat and cool. And all of those things that go along with more consumption. And oh, hello, climate change.

Reema Khrais 

So that is a very good point. Yeah. Yeah. So they’re, they’re acting like dining areas, bathtubs, office spaces. Anyway, so that’s going on. And then this article in the Washington Post was about another housing trend. The title for this one is, let me pull that up, “The enduring allure of the cheap old house,” and that is about how a growing number of people are interested in homes that are old, that are built more than 100 years ago. They make up, an interesting stat in here, they make up about 6% of homes in the U.S. So you trade imperfection for a lower price. Of course requires more work, right? I’m a little skeptical. I’m like, thinking a lot of money.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, so I’m laughing because my house is 112 years old. And just because it’s in the greater Los Angeles area, it definitely was not cheaper. But also every time you open up a wall in that house, it is and I’m not kidding, $5,000. Truly, truly, truly, it’s crazy. I mean, we had an electrician in probably three or four years ago, he founded knob and tube wiring in that house. Knob and tube is the old stuff with the bare wires and all that jazz. terrify, terrify. So you know, I love I love my house, but man,

Reema Khrais 

That’s a lot of work. Yeah. Well, it’s like a whole thing. Now. There’s even an HGTV show that’s coming in the spring. It’s called “Who’s afraid of a cheap old house?” Like, yeah, on social media. People love seeing the house flips. And you know, yeah, it’s fun to look at. But yeah, so just wanted to point out those two articles because I think increasingly people are trying to come up with more creative avenues to homeownership, because it is depressingly out of reach.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, yeah, it totally is. Sound. Alright, so that’s news. Let’s do a little little mailbag.

Mailbag

Hi Kai and Kimberly. This is Godfrey from San Francisco. Jessie from Charleston, South Carolina. And I have a follow up question. It has me thinking and feeling a lot of things.

Kai Ryssdal 

Alright, so we asked a little while ago for your summer reading recommendations. And now that summer is almost over. Here’s a little snapshot of what some of y’all said.

Montage

Hi, I’m calling to recommend a summer read. It’s called “The Book of Delights.” It’s a book of essays. You can put it down and pick it up. And it’s by the poet Ross Gay … While, this title might sound like a fantasy novel or maybe Stephen King. It’s actually about the Federal Reserve and some other big financial stuff. It’s called “The Creature from Jekyll Island.” …  I just got off the waiting list in my local library for Clint Smith’s newest book “Above Ground.” I read the audiobook version read by Smith himself, which is what I highly recommend. His poems are relevant, beautiful and challenging … My recommendation for your summer reading list is “A Perfect Vintage” by Chelsea Fagan. Her story deals with a lot of power dynamics in finance and romance that are intertangled in a way that you guys sometimes cover … I have a summer reading list recommendation for you, and it’s also the only thing that’s really given me comfort through all these hard to digest news cycles. It’s called “The Storm Before the Calm” by George Friedman.

Reema Khrais 

That was Heather in Santa Rosa, Curt in Florida, Abby in North Carolina, Gordon in DC, and Jamie in Charlotte. We’ll link the full list of summer reading recs our listeners sent in on the show page. I love this segment. I’ll also share what I’ve been reading. I recently read “Flawless” by Elise Hu. Do you  recognize her name?

Kai Ryssdal

Oh yeah it’s supposed to be really good.

Reema Khrais

It’s great. Yeah, it’s really good. She, yeah, she’s a host over at NPR. It’s really just fascinating book about Korean beauty standards, how Korean society ties appearance to professional prospects. And yeah, she makes some interesting parallels to beauty standards here in the U.S. Yeah. And the role that technology plays and all that.

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh, that’s so much the I didn’t know that technology parts, got a lot of buzz got a lot of buzz and I’m totally happy for it. Okay, so next item. Last Friday, after the better part of a beer. I’m sure I asked why there were some of you on the livestream who didn’t vote in our poll. And some of you including Nancy in Oregon, wrote in to explain it. Here’s what she said “To vote during the YouTube live stream on Friday requires listeners to log in using a gmail address. Those of us who have something different are out. So I think I count as a listener on the live stream but not a voter.” Others by the way did say that the chat doesn’t come up if they’re watching the live stream on their phones or on their Kindles. So that could be it. So fine. I apologize. I’m sorry for my my unkind remarks about listeners.

Reema Khrais 

That was a funny, that was a funny show Friday.

Kai Ryssdal 

All credit to Nova Safo. Right.

Reema Khrais 

Yeah he’s a comedian. Before we go, we’re going to leave you with this week’s answer to the Make Me Smart question, which is, of course: what is something you thought you knew, but later found out you were wrong about? This week’s answer comes from President and CEO of Campbell’s Soup, Mark Clouse.

Mark Clouse

One of my most pivotal moments professionally, was becoming the general manager and the president of Kraft Foods, Greater China. You know, I get in my first townhall, I’m like, I’m gonna really show people that I care and that I’m, you know, nice guy. And we had just finished a big systems integration in the business. And so I had the woman who let it stand up in the audience, and I was just gushing at how great she had done and with every compliment I was giving her, I could watch her getting more and more uncomfortable. And I’m like, huh, did I get the wrong person? Like, what did I do? I’m walking offstage and my head of HR, who was a long long time, expat comes out to me, he’s like, Mark, you cannot do that. You can’t single people out in the Chinese culture. That’s not the way to do it, you know, 3000 years of the group being more important than an individual. And although it’s kind of a simple thing that I thought I knew that I didn’t know it built for me a very quick appreciation that if I think I understand or know other cultures, I better just listen and learn a little bit before I jump in with both feet.

Kai Ryssdal 

Cultural awareness is huge. So big, so so big. Yeah, totally.

Reema Khrais 

Well, we want to hear your answer to the make me smart question. Our number is 508-827-6278. Also known as 508-U-B-SMART.

Kai Ryssdal 

Make Me Smart is produced by Courtney Bergsieker. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter. Today’s program was engineered by Jayk Cherry. Jesson Duller is going to mix down later our intern is Niloufar Shahbandi.

Reema Khrais 

Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez miss those two, composed our theme music. Our senior producer is Marissa Cabrera. Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts. Francesca Levy is the executive director of Digital and Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neal Scarbrough. Perfect. That is the show.

Kai Ryssdal 

That is the show. No matter how much longer the music goes. Just get, sorry. Just kidding.

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