Nocera and Collins

In “Look, Ma, No Hands!” Mr. Nocera says Google’s driverless cars are ready to take the road, and the use of that technology is a good thing for us all.  In “A Political Brand of Sominex” Ms. Collins says can’t sleep? Instead of counting sheep, how about counting up your 2016 presidential candidates?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Wednesday morning, during Google’s annual meeting, a shareholder named John M. Simpson stood up to question the company’s top executives about its self-driving car program. They were not friendly questions.

Simpson, 67, works for a nonprofit called Consumer Watchdog, where he directs its Privacy Project. In recent years, he has focused largely on Google, which, he told me, he hopes to prod into “being more respectful of people’s privacy when they do business.” Owning Google stock allows him to ask questions at the annual meeting.

In the run-up to this week’s meeting, Simpson issued a string of press releases critical of Google’s self-driving vehicles. He feared that Google would collect data from car owners, stripping away even more of people’s privacy. He noted that Google’s “autonomous cars,” as they’re called, have been involved in 11 accidents (two recent fender-benders brings it up to 13). He listed what he said were the technology’s flaws: for instance, that it can’t make out hand signals from a driver in another car.

Finally, Simpson noted that Google — and Google alone — envisions cars that have no steering wheels or brakes, cars where everyone is a passenger. Simpson views this as Google’s hubris, pointing out that other car companies view self-driving technology as a complement, not replacement, for the driver. “We think there always needs to be the ability of a human to take over if need be,” he told me. Having looked into it more closely, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion.

Google’s effort to build a self-driving car is part of the division called Google X, led by a scientist with the too perfect name of Astro Teller. The goal of Google X is to attempt “moonshots” — efforts that require a radical solution that, if they succeed, would solve a huge problem (while making a nice return for Google, of course). The big problem self-driving cars could help solve, said Teller in a recent speech, is the “1.2 million people who die every year in car accidents.”

During the six years Google has been working on self-driving technology, its cars have been taught to understand how to traverse the roads. With their combination of robotics, sensors and computing power, they know how to stop at a stop sign, look for oncoming pedestrians, change lanes, get on the freeway and anticipate all the various problems that drivers face.

Using retrofitted Lexuses, Google has driven a million miles autonomously. More recently, it has built several dozen small cars without steering wheels and brakes and is ready to test them in the streets of Mountain View, Calif. (though the State of California is insisting that Google add a steering wheel and brakes to the cars it sends out for this experiment).

It’s true that Google is alone in envisioning a world of completely driverless cars, while other car companies see self-driving technology as merely an extra feature that can be turned off. Google’s conclusion is not the result of hubris, however. Unlike its new cars, the retrofitted Lexuses also allow for human driving.

Google realized that when people had the ability to drive autonomously, they paid less attention to what they were doing. “People don’t even pay attention to driving when they are driving,” said Teller. The cars, which have 360-degree vision and can “see” much further ahead than humans, were at their safest when people didn’t have the option of taking the controls.

Alain Kornhauser, a self-driving car expert at Princeton University, pointed out to me that when the auto companies install autonomous features to aid drivers, it won’t be the humans who escape accidents by taking over from the technology — which is what Simpson assumes. Rather, the technology will step in to override human error.

Google notes that in every accident its cars have been involved in, all of them minor, the self-driving cars have never been at fault — except on the one occasion when a Google driver took the controls. And all the “flaws” Simpson notes are things that Google has either solved or is in the process of solving.

At the annual meeting, Simpson asked Google if it would pledge not to use any customer data it gathers from driverless cars for marketing purposes. David Drummond, the company’s general counsel, ducked the question, saying it was too early to make any such pledge. Simpson also asked Google to release the accident reports. In truth, Google has released plenty of information about the accidents, and on Friday began issuing monthly reports that include descriptions of accidents.

Simpson and other consumer advocates are right to press Google — and all the big tech companies — on privacy issues. The profligate use of our data has become a big concern for many Americans. But on the question of whether Google should be promoting completely autonomous cars, he couldn’t be more wrong. The sooner they are a reality, the safer we’ll all be.

I wonder if he’s been driving in Savannah…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

When I have trouble falling asleep, I do lists. Like running through the names of all the presidents, along with several factoids for each one. I was rather proud of this talent until friends sent me a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres interviewing a 5-year-old girl who could do it better.

Then, pathetically, I moved on to vice presidents, becoming the only person on my block who knew the backstory on Schuyler Colfax.

There are all sorts of variations of this game. I once tried to mentally list all the contestants on a season of “The Amazing Race” in order of elimination. But the point here is that this could be a practical use for our ever-growing pantheon of presidential contenders. When you get weary and you can’t sleep, count the candidates instead of sheep.

They’re current events and slumber-inducing, too.

Three seems like a good number of facts at this point in the political calendar. All non-issue-related. You don’t really want to dwell on Rick Perry’s agenda when he might be gone again by Labor Day.

And nothing too psychological, like why Lindsey Graham decided to come snarling out of the gate like a rabid otter. (“Kill terrorists, grow jobs.”) Actually, he’s been working on that persona for some time. During a Senate meeting on gun control, Graham wondered what an assault rifle ban would mean “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”

O.K., that’s not going to induce slumber. Let’s start over. Close your eyes …

Rick Perry: Former Texas governor. Only candidate for president currently under indictment. Once shot a coyote while jogging. Has a rap-country campaign song that goes: “Rick Perry supporter/Let’s protect our border.”

Whoops, that was four.

Lindsey Graham: Senator from South Carolina. Besties with Senator John McCain. Once suggested he’d drown himself if Barack Obama took North Carolina, but failed to follow through.

George Pataki: Former New York governor. Middle name is Elmer. Father spent his later years in a home for indigent volunteer firefighters.

Rick Santorum: Former senator from Pennsylvania. Held up a big piece of coal during his official announcement. Really fond of sweater vests.

And those are just the Republican candidates we’ve acquired over the past 10 days! Let’s look at the Democrats:

Lincoln Chafee: Former Republican senator. Former independent governor. Used announcement speech to call on the nation to adopt the metric system.

Martin O’Malley: Former governor of Maryland. Plays in Celtic rock band. Allegedly a model for the mayor in “The Wire.”

Bernie Sanders: Senator from Vermont. Wrote a weird piece on rape fantasies 43 years ago that he recently described as “something Like ‘50 Shades of Grey.’ ” Carries a brass key chain from the Eugene V. Debs campaign.

Hillary Clinton: Once claimed, in a 2008 campaign ad, that she was “raised on pinochle and the American Dream.” Likes to watch home-rehab shows on HGTV. Author of five books, including “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.”

And now, back to the Republicans. Should we do Scott Walker? No, he’s not an official candidate. Even though it would be interesting to discuss whether “college dropout” is a fair factoid. And Jeb Bush has only announced that he’s going to announce something when he gets back from a trip to Estonia. You have to have some rules about these things or else you’ll have 400 candidates to go through, including your neighbor Fred who just put a sign on his lawn, proclaiming his availability.

Also, I don’t think we have to worry about Donald Trump at this point. Trump has picked a day for a big announcement, but it could well be news that Caitlyn Jenner will be a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Marco Rubio: Senator from Florida. Owns a sword named Chang. First job was building cages for exotic birds.

Ben Carson: Retired neurosurgeon. Played on screen by Cuba Gooding Jr. Called Barack Obama a “psychopath.”

Rand Paul: Senator from Kentucky. Cuts his own hair. Once accused of forcing a classmate to worship “Aqua Buddha.”

Carly Fiorina: Former C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard. Got fired from Hewlett-Packard. Once ran for Senate with an ad that portrayed her Republican opponent as a Demon Sheep.

Mike Huckabee: Former governor of Arkansas. Fried squirrels in a popcorn popper during college. Accepted $130,000 in gifts during his tenure in Little Rock, including a stadium blanket and a chainsaw.

Ted Cruz: Senator from Texas. Born in Canada. Claims he stopped liking rock music after 9/11.

Drowsy yet? If it hasn’t worked by now, try imagining them all jumping over a fence.



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