Jason Torchinsky’s Robot, Take the Wheel tops our list of must-read books for anyone interested in autonomous vehicles. Torchinsky, automotive expert and senior editor of Jalopnik.com, joins Alex to talk about this history of self-driving and how AV developers plan for human habits inside and outside the cars.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving technology and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy.

Today I want to talk about a topic that drives me crazy, and we have an amazing guest to discuss it. That topic is people just sounding off on stuff about which they may not know that much. And they always have to take a side, you know, not everything is good or bad. And it’s really important that we at least learn something about things we don’t understand before we get into it. So, because the show’s about technology, specifically self-driving and artificial intelligence, I think we want to get into with someone who’s as open-minded and creative as anyone in media. 

Today’s guest is Jason Torchinsky. He’s one of the most honest people in journalism. He’s a fresh thinker. He’s full of interesting ideas. He’s a senior editor of Jalopnik. He’s written for Gizmodo. He’s been on “Jay Leno’s Garage.” He has a show of his own called “Jason Drives.” And he’s the author of a fascinating book called “Robot, Take the Wheel and the Lost Art of Driving.” Jason, welcome to No Parking. 

Jason Torchinsky

Thanks Alex. I appreciate you having me here. 

Alex Roy

I think we met, uh, was it seven years ago? 10 years ago? 

Jason Torchinsky

It’s been a while. 

Alex Roy

I’ve read a lot of your pieces and I love them all because they’re really, really funny. You do your own illustrations, which really clarifies your thinking when you’re trying to figure out how technology might work in the future, but you also are a collector of vintage robots and video game systems. 

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah old computers and old, old obsolete tech nobody really wants. 

Alex Roy

You say no one really wants it. That’s not true, because you did a story about the Vectrex vector graphics video game system. And I remember the, for anyone who doesn’t know what a Vectrex is, it was a video game system, all in one unit, but with a vector graphics screen.

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah

Alex Roy

And you would have these plastic sheets that you would insert from the top of the unit that would slide down over the screen. And so you could change the… 

Jason Torchinsky

Color, because it couldn’t do color on its own, because vector graphics are completely dead display technology. They don’t use pixels like everything else. They’re perfect lines. And the look is just great. Like old games, like asteroids used it and Tempest, but nothing else looks that way now.

It’s funny but old technologies that whatever was cutting edge 10 or 20 or 50 years ago at the time, you know, it goes through like all technology, this trough of disillusionment, and then decades later, the kids who grew up on it — like me, like you — want to buy those devices. They will go from $500 to zero and then to $10,000. 

Jason Torchinsky

Oh yeah, Vectrex especially used to be worth nothing. And now recently you can’t find them for under like $600 or 800 bucks or something absurd like that. 

Alex Roy

You wrote a bunch of stories about “Why are cars so angry looking?” 

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah. 

Alex Roy

And I think if I recall correctly, I think you stated that the evolution of the grill has gone from like a happy face to a very angry and aggressive face.

Jason Torchinsky

Oh yeah. This is a known thing. All the designers at car companies say they do studies and focus groups and people have decided they want aggressive looking cars. And if you look at it, every new car that’s made tends to have a fairly aggressive looking face, unless it’s a deliberate retro design. Something like, you know, like a Fiat 500, the new one, or the new Beetle or the new Mini, even cars like the Mustang and like the Charger that were deliberately based on earlier designs were made to look angrier and meaner. And people even buy aftermarket face modifiers for Jeeps that give them those crazy angry eyes. So I guess there is a demand for it. Although I find it baffling, I like a friendly looking car that wants to go out and just tear it up and have a good time and not wants to murder you when your back is turned. 

Alex Roy

What was the name of the convertible in the sixties that had literally had a smile as a grill?

Jason Torchinsky

The Bugeye Sprite.

Alex Roy

Yeah, the Bugeye Sprite. My dad had one of those. More car should look like that. 

Jason Torchinsky

Right!

Alex Roy

The Firefly looked like Pokemon, like it would look like this friendly thing. 

I was recently investigating the history of autonomous vehicles and film and pop culture and trying to see how close they might’ve come or accurate they might’ve been. Looking at Knight Rider today. It, to me, it is so much better than I realized in the intervening, I guess, was it 40, 35 years? And I would love to track down one of the writers that show and figure out like what they were thinking at the time. Cause they anthropomorphize the car, but a lot of the features that make a lot of sense. 

Alex Roy

You recently did a story asking what kind of car should a new Kitt be? 

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah. 

Alex Roy

Can you walk us through the logic of that, and what your answer to that question? 

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah. So yeah, the Knight Industries 2000, as you know, the full name of Kitt. My choice doesn’t seem that obvious at first, I think, but in context of what an autonomous vehicle should be, I think it makes a lot of sense, because I’m a big proponent that once the car is driving itself, we’ve got to really rethink how the car is designed. Something like Kitt, uh, like a Trans-Am Firebird kind of car — long hood short body — doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re driving the vehicle. So I actually picked a Chrysler Pacifica, which is not something that would leap out at you. Like you don’t normally think about it, but they’re not, they’re not slow for one thing. They’re actually pretty quick. There’s a lot of room inside, and that’s the key because an autonomous vehicle, you’ve got to think of from the inside out. It’s a room on wheels and for Kitt to make real sense. It should be, if it’s going to be an autonomous robot that drives itself, you want as much room in the inside as possible to do all the other things that Michael Knight had to do — investigating research and dusting for fingerprints, and maybe slapping around a suspect or whatever he does.

But you want room in there to do it and a big van with a sliding door and seats that fold into the floor and give you a room is ideal for something like that. I think Kitt needs to have room inside.

Alex Roy

Why not a Tesla Model X? Doesn’t it have to be electric?

Jason Torchinsky

I guess it could be electric. Uh, well for one thing, I think at this moment, if we’re talking about  Kitt existing today in 2021, right now, then Michael Knight may have to go on a long cross-country trip and not have to do a lot of planning and you know, the range and the infrastructure just isn’t quite there. If Kitt was restricted to one city, maybe I’d be more comfortable with the Tesla. And also the Falcon doors I don’t entirely trust. I feel like I’d rather have a sliding door.

Alex Roy

I would say it would have to be a Tesla Model X, except for the fact that the compute required for Kitt — like Kitt, that’s a serious AI. I see that consuming me so much power. I don’t think there’s an electric vehicle today with enough battery on board for the kind of performance and compute required to operate Knight Industries AI.

Jason Torchinsky

I didn’t even think about that, but you’re right. Cause that’s… Even just sitting idle, just thinking, it’s going to be drawing power.

Alex Roy

It needs to be air conditioned and cooled, like literally 24/7. 

Jason Torchinsky

That’s true. 

Alex Roy

So the other thing is if the way Knight Rider was, um, what’s the word? Serviced, is it would go onto this 18-wheeler, right? 

Jason Torchinsky

Right. It would drive up into the back.

Alex Roy

So you have to have on the 18-wheeler everything you need to get it back up and running. Unless you’re not going to recharge that car on the 18-wheeler, it doesn’t make sense. Cause you’ve got to fast, you might need three minutes. So it’s gotta be internal combustion or a hybrid.

Jason Torchinsky

At least. Yeah. Right now. Down the road, who knows. But you know, things are changing. But at the moment, I’ll stick with that.

Alex Roy

Any alternatives to the Chrysler Pacifica?

Jason Torchinsky

Well, I mean, honestly, anything with a decent volume of space inside. It could be a Ford Transit. But I feel like what you want is you want volume. If it’s going to be autonomous, you want a big box on wheels of some kind. You can pick something cooler than a Pacifica. But I think you’re still gonna want some kind of van, the bigger transits or a sprinter, something like that would work. Anything like that. Plus why should it look… Maybe it should look like a beat up delivery van too. Like he’s a detective. Like why be so showy? You want to be able to park somewhere and no one care. Like a gas company van.

Alex Roy

So “Robot, Take the Wheel: The Lost Art of Driving.” The cover of that book has an image I guess from fifties or sixties of a family in an autonomous vehicle with a glass bubble, and they’re playing a board game, playing Dominos. Yeah. Where did you get that image?

Jason Torchinsky

It’s actually a composite of two similar images. This background is a little different, but this was an old, um, where was this thing from? It was from like a Popular Science I think, or something like that. It’s, you know, and it’s kind of, it’s one of these things. These images show, this image shows up a lot in these kinds of articles, because it was from that, um, that pie in the sky era, in the fifties where they were just conceptually coming up with all of these ideas. I’m trying to see if it mentions where the cover image actually came from. I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Alex Roy

All of those magazine articles and books from back then were like, so, um, what’s it called? Uh, like optimistic,

Jason Torchinsky

Wildly optimistic.

Alex Roy

There’s also a funny one floating around from like an Italian magazine of a city where all the pedestrians are in these single humanoid pods.

Jason Torchinsky

Oh yeah. I know that image. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like a little phone booth kind of deal. Yeah. I love that.

Alex Roy

And you could see, like decades from now, if we have true mobility solutions and another pandemic, that that’s what people are going to take around. Have you seen that wonderful, um, video actually, it’s a film, I guess the film stock has been fixed, from like the twenties from Germany of a train, which is a hanging train going through a German city?

Jason Torchinsky

I have seen those. I know there’s trains. You’re talking about, it’s a monorail, but it’s suspended. Yeah. Yeah. I have seen those.

Alex Roy

Why was it suspended? What was the logic behind that? Why do they just put it on a track that it sat on?

Jason Torchinsky

You know, I’ve seen some of those before. I know some of those were used propellers to push them along. And I don’t know if it was easier to deal with the propeller if it was suspended…

Alex Roy

It was actually driven like an aviation… like a prop like on a plane? 

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah. Like a pusher propeller at the rear of the car and it pushed it and it didn’t have any driving mechanisms. Like it was literally just hanging from the track. I know that at least one of them was that way. Maybe there were others. And I think maybe for banking purposes it was easier to have it that way around curves. I’m not really sure.

Alex Roy

For anyone who doesn’t know what we’re talking about, you should Google “hanging train Germany” and check it out. There’s a really cool video. You know, a lot of the most futurist stuff really was conceptualized far in the past, but the technology at the time wasn’t ready to deploy it, which brings us to the book and the history section and the timeless vehicles. 

So I was recently talking to the founders of Argo AI, Bryan and Pete, about the history of autonomous vehicles and creating a timeline. Most timelines start in the 20th century, usually the second half of 20th century and your book goes back really far. I mean really far, and starts with Leonardo da Vinci and this cart.

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah, 1478. Yeah, DaVinci’s cart. 

Alex Roy

Can you explain a bit about this cart?

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah, so the reason I say it’s autonomous is because it was a vehicle, it was spring powered, so it didn’t go far, but it could… You didn’t drive it. You actually stored a program in it. And then it executed the path that you gave it. There was a toy in the eighties called a Big Track, which was a lot like this. You said you had one, right?

Alex Roy

A Big Track had a little plastic overlay on the top of it, and you could enter commands like forward, left, right back, double forward, double back. And you enter a sequence of commands. It would then execute those commands.

Jason Torchinsky

The cart was the exact same thing. 

Alex Roy

Explain that. 

Jason Torchinsky

Okay. So the way it kind of worked was… I guess the easiest way to analogize it is like… You know, how a music box works? It’s got like a cylinder with pegs on it, then plucks it. So the cylinder, if you unwrapped it, it is basically a series of commands telling it what to pluck. So this was similar in that it had ways — the spring was wound up, it could apply power to one or the other wheel, so it could kind of steer like a tank, and by putting these pegs in certain places you could direct which wheel the spring was giving power to at a certain time. And I think it had like a cord that was wound around that acted as like a timing thing. So you could set this amount of time based on the rope. It hits this peg power, the left wheel, which will make it turn, then power both wheels to go straight, and then power to the right wheel to turn again. So you can basically program a path in and then you would release like the pin and the springs would go and it would execute this little path and stop. 

And they built one over in a museum in Italy, and apparently it actually works.

Alex Roy

But DaVinci never built one?

Jason Torchinsky

We don’t, we’re not sure. So I don’t think anybody’s 100% sure if he just had plans or if it was actually built back in the day, but based on his original plans, curators of this museum did build one to see if it was possible. And it looks like it would have worked. So it’s not using anything exotic that he wouldn’t have been able to do it. So he, he might have, there’s no evidence, I don’t think, of an existing one.

Alex Roy

When you’re going through your history of autonomous vehicles, you describe railroads as semi autonomous. Explain.

Jason Torchinsky

100%. Okay. So I believe that the railroads are semi autonomous vehicles, because the direction aspect, the steering aspect, is actually part of the system. The rail network itself is the steering of the system. In a train, you’re just choosing basically how fast to go and when to stop it. So the engineer of a train is not a hundred percent in charge of the driving of the train. He just chooses the rate speed, fundamentally. The actual network itself comprises the steering setup of the train. So it’s semi-autonomous, it’s automatic steering. It’s just via a network.

Alex Roy

Do you think there’s a difference between the word autonomous and automated?

Jason Torchinsky

Automated is something that is still kind of requires a human. The human decides the goals and what to do and the main decisions, but it handles the mechanics of it. Autonomy implies a greater level of thought. Autonomy implies you just give it the end goal, the destination, and it handles everything in between. Automated is, it just takes care of things for you. Automatic transmission, for example, shifts for you. That’s automated. That’s not autonomous, it’s not an autonomous transmission.

Alex Roy

So humans gotta put it in gear. 

Jason Torchinsky

You got to put it in gear, but it’s doing, yeah, it’s doing the boring stuff for you.

Alex Roy

But then we have cruise control. 

Jason Torchinsky

Yes. Cruise control, which was originally called autopilot by Chrysler. A blind man created cruise control. Ralph Teetor, he was the guy who was blind and he created it, because he was in a car with a, I think it was a friend who was a lawyer. And when he was talking to his friend, the car would like slow down as the guy was talking. And then when he was talking, it would speed up because his friend was like focusing on speaking. He was just getting nauseous from the like lurching back and forth. So that was what gave him the idea to create something that basically held the throttle at one set point. And then you just keep going. And that was the origin. That was the guy who created cruise control. He could never actually drive himself. 

Alex Roy

Yeah, I wish more ride-hail drivers would use their cruise controls because the problem, it’s still pervasive. All right. Explain to us, as you’re talking, you’re putting together, you’re give me a new thesis about autonomous vehicles. But explain to us the Nebraska highway.

Jason Torchinsky

Okay. So if I recall the Nebraska highway, it was an experimental highway. Let me see here. It looks like, yeah, RCA labs did it and they were doing… It was not a long stretch of road. I think it was just a few hundred feet really. And they had antenna coils on the car’s bumper and inset into the road itself was like a guidewire that carried an electrical current. So they had a meter in the car that basically was telling you how much you’re deviating from the center of the road. So it was kind of like a lane keeping system. But unlike modern lane keeping systems, it required a combination of hardware in the road and in the car to work. Where modern ones, I guess they sort of require things in the road in that they’re actually cameras looking for the line. So yeah, they blocked the screen, the windshield and let people try to drive based on these needles.

Alex Roy

You know what? It’s funny to hear people talk about autonomous vehicles arriving and trying to ask someone to predict a date. Like what’s the arrival date? But if you look at the history of trains and planes and cars, you realize that it required the sum of like 50 inventions and then innovation on top. Because inventing is irrelevant. You can have 10,000 inventions, but if you don’t put them together in a unified system, you don’t have the innovation that is the product.

Jason Torchinsky

Absolutely right.

Alex Roy

Which is kind of where we are now with your… Well, your article last week, you were asking why don’t… I forget what the headline was. You were asking why don’t vehicles take advantage of road infrastructure. Tell me about your thesis there.

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah. So the thing that’s been bothering me lately about autonomous vehicles and where we are now is I can’t get out of my head, the failover problem. Like to get past level two. Cause I feel like all these…

Alex Roy

To move past driver assistance.

Jason Torchinsky

Right. To move past just driver assistance. Like all the systems we have now, and the reason when people sleep in their Teslas, they can get in wrecks and its trouble is because you literally have to be ready to take over at any moment. And this is such a hard problem. And the reason why Tesla keeps trotting out better and better versions of their level two system, but it fundamentally just doesn’t matter, is two-fold. I mean, partially vigilant systems, like a level two system, where someone is just asked to keep an eye on something that’s doing most of the work, is inherently not compatible with how humans work. And this has been known for decades. They did studies in like the ’60s, and ’40s even, of people trying to keep an eye on systems. And we’re just not good at it. If something is doing 90% of the work, you’re going to let your attention wander. And to some people that may even go as far as sleeping. So anytime you have to just be ready to take over, that’s our bottleneck. And getting past that is hard because in situations where it can’t do its job, the system, and it requires the human to step in, that means something went wrong. It’s not 100%. It needs help. It needs to stop. So you’re asking something to safely get out of the way on its own after something has happened to it, where it can’t comfortably drive anymore.

And I was thinking, asking one vehicle to do all this is a lot. Like, I don’t know if you can do it because…

Alex Roy

Well there is a way.

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah…

Alex Roy

I think that the problem you’re describing, which is a real problem, I think that the evolution of driver assistance is going to be capable of bringing the car to a stop in say a place without the infrastructure. Because although the infrastructure will be nice to have, I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a commitment like that.

Jason Torchinsky

Oh yeah. It’s a big ask. How do you do it otherwise?

Alex Roy

I’m hoping that autonomous vehicles arrive where the majority of people are, and answer that problem before we have to tackle it. 

The second half of the title of your book is ‘and the lost art of driving’. ‘Robot, Take the Wheel and the Lost Art of Driving.’ Do you think it’s lost? I don’t… Do you think there’s some conflict between the art of driving and the rise of autonomous vehicles?

Jason Torchinsky

I do think there are some things. I’m someone who does love to drive, but I also accept that there’s plenty of places where autonomy makes sense and there’s plenty of people who don’t want to drive. But my biggest issue has to do with the fact that driving is one of the last spaces we have where nobody can ask you to do stuff. Like other than going to the bathroom, if you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to drive to this place for two hours,’ and you can maybe talk on the phone, but no one’s asking you to really do anything taxing. It’s freeing that way. You still have to do the task of driving, but the task of driving is one of those things where it doesn’t use all of your brain. A lot of people I know think better when they drive. You can think about other things while driving and still drive just fine. You can listen to music. 

Alex Roy

When you say just fine…?

Jason Torchinsky

Well, I mean, you can drive well. You can certainly go for a drive and be thinking about other things, but still are a completely safe driver. I mean, driving isn’t so… On a track maybe. But like regular normal driving in a city or on a highway, you can pay plenty of attention, be ready for whatever and be listening to a book on tape. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Alex Roy

I think I might disagree with you. I agree with you that one can… It’s a space that people want because it’s cathartic.

Jason Torchinsky

It is cathartic. 

Alex Roy

Because there’s privacy. And if you have the discipline to turn off your phone, you can do some good thinking. But I am not convinced that is 100% safe because my understanding of human cognition is that it’s like a well. It’s at 100% and you can divide it up any way you want, but every percent point you take off of the task of driving, increases the likelihood of something happening.

Jason Torchinsky

You don’t think you can listen to music while you drive?

Alex Roy

I think you can, but a race car driver doesn’t listen to music.

Jason Torchinsky

Well, no, but their driving environment is very different.

Alex Roy

I love driving more than anybody, but I know that when I was doing some of my most irresponsible things in a car, there was no music. Ever. You know what I’m talking about, all the Cannonball stuff.

Jason Torchinsky

I think we all know there are times where you’re trying to focus on something where you’ll instinctively turn the music down. Or when the weather gets bad. I think we’ve all been there. We’ve been driving, listening to music and it gets really rainy and you turn the music down so you can focus more. I don’t think that kind of shifting is a problem.

Alex Roy

I 100% agree with you on the cathartic value of driving. Here’s a thesis. I think that the rise of autonomous vehicles is going to actually strengthen car culture because the only people who will be driving are the ones who really want to, who are doing so because they love it.

Jason Torchinsky

There’ll be no point to building a boring human-driven car anymore. Why would you do it?

Alex Roy

I don’t think there’s a conflict between driving and autonomous vehicles, because if you separate people into the ‘wants’ crowd and the ‘needs’ crowd, you’re losing. But if you realize that people want both. They want the convenience and they want the pleasure. And I think that you’re going to see a strengthening of car culture as a result.

Jason Torchinsky

There is one other issue I have though. And that has to do with wandering, in that the first thing that’s required getting into any autonomous vehicle is a destination. You have to tell it where you want to go. But I’ve driven many times without knowing where I’m going to end up. Like I get in the car, you go in some direction with a vague idea, and then you see what happens. And often those trips turn out amazing. Sometimes, they’re great. You might be able to synthesize it in an autonomous car. Maybe you could artificially program a wander mode, or you can give it a general destination and it uses some algorithms…

Alex Roy

Startup idea!

Jason Torchinsky

Yeah, there you go. But then you get people trying to buy things into the randomness and they’re sending you to Western Sizzlin’ or whatever.

Alex Roy

I fully agree with you. But I think that this trend of removing the mystery of the world, the vagaries of life, the magic, started when we went from paper maps to GPS.

Jason Torchinsky

That’s true also.

Alex Roy

Because I remember printing out MapQuest directions in the ’90s and that took away some of the magic for me and the kismet. And so even the chance of going somewhere and forgetting how you got there and finding a place that you can never find again. And the mysteries of the world are what make life worth living.

Jason Torchinsky

I took plenty of trips before I had a cell phone in an old Beetle and you just go based on the signs and you figure out where you are. And that was amazing too. Although GPS buys you some freedom because you can explore a little more because you’re never that worried about not being able to find your way back.

Alex Roy

But that worry is something which also has value. Cathartic value.

Jason Torchinsky

I agree.

Alex Roy

The joy of discovery. Nobody wants that. All right. 

Jason Torchinsky is Senior Editor at Jalopnik, author of ‘Robot Take the Wheel and the Lost Art of Driving’. He has a great show called Jason Drives. I highly recommend his book because it asks a lot of the questions and is really educational and doesn’t take a side. It’s really about the optimism of how people figure stuff out. 

Thanks so much for being here today.

Jason Torchinsky

Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Alex Roy

Well, that’s it from us. If you enjoyed this episode and want to engage with us some more, please follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. I’m everywhere @AlexRoy144. Megan Harris is our awesome producer. 

And please share No Parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us a good review wherever you find your favorite podcasts. This show is managed by Civic Entertainment Group. 

I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking podcast.