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Robot, Take the Wheel ... The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving

Published on Tue, Dec 10, 2019

By: Doug Stokes Book Review

Robot, Take The Wheel The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving

By Jason Torchinsky
Forward by Beau Boeckmann
Apollo Publishers 2019
Hardbound – 244 pages
Chapter illustrations by the author
$24.95 USD
ISBN: 978-1-94806-226-8 (Print)
ISBN: 978-1- 948062-27-5 (Ebook)


Before we start this revue, I feel that I must let on to our readers that I Well and Firmly* believe that surely** author Jason Torchinsky’s mother must have been frightened by a crystal ball when she was carrying him. Well, maybe frightened wasn’t quite the right word … “greatly-influenced” perhaps … or better still: “swayed by the experience” -Doug Stokes,  Editor at Large

OK then, here we go: This book “ROBOT, TAKE THE WHEEL The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving is about automation, but not just your regular old-fashion, regular, standard, run-of-the-mill, down-to-earth automation (like wrapping candy bars as they come off a production line so darn fast that the whole darn process is a dadgummed blur). Here we’re talking the ongoing and all-encompassing, pretty darn-well mind-numbing automation of automobiles and Jason Torshinski’s on-going love/hate/crazy-cat/concerned/conflicted relationship with the concept and (even moreso) the consequences.

HOUSEKEEPING: … would you please insert the following: “brightly-written and about as funny as it is scary” between “This” and “book” in the above paragraph.

The really “scary” part is because Torchinski herein calls a glitch a glitch and lays out the recent present of automated*** automobiles and all of the cornucopia of pitfalls that full automation of the driving process holds in full view. And, as he here reminds****, had previously given fair warning thereof.

At this point, I feel the need to point out that this Torchinski is (at least in my 70+ years of reading experience) the only author who I’ve ever read who has publicly apologized in print and film for his hair.

Of course, you’d be a fool not to agree with me that Dylan Thomas and Stephen King should have done so very long ago and (to the best of my knowledge, did not)  … but good old  JT did and did it publicly on the reasonably-popular Jalopnik website.  Openly and not to mention, in full daylight.

GRAMMERLY WARNING: We’ll be starting the next ‘graph off with the same word as the previous one:

Of course his coarse, tangled, midnight charcoal hair is extra hard not listen to when he’s lecturing on YouTube, luckily it remains unseen here in “Robot, Take The Wheel (etc.)“ (a title that he uses as more of a warning than a clever play on a line from Yeats).

(You’ll need to Google his manic mane if curious, as it does not yet have its own website, but we hear there’s a “Go Fund Me” effort being kicked around for that very purpose.)

Chock-full of useful leads and information, one of the very most useful set of pages in the whole book (we are attempting to be quite serious here, so listen up)are the extensive “Notes” section (really a bibliography) that the author most generously fills 8+ pages with, referencing and fleshing out many of the claims, quotes, theorems, formulas, and dictums that he lords it over in this unique publication.

We (well, most of us anyway) know that taking control of a motor vehicle (or a bandsaw for that matter) is something that can be a good, bad, or a last rites proposition.

Torch (I think that we know him well enough to call him by his Skid Plate Racing name by  now … Anyhow, Torch consistently reminds us of the latter days of adventure, when the road was still to be set out upon with either (it didn’t matter at all) a precise set of plans or with but only an old Izod shirt on one’s back, a pair of Old Navy cargo shorts with just under $9 dollars in the pockets, some well-worn Kirkland court shoes on our feet and half a tank of Costco regular sloshing around under the rear seat… you know Ad-Ven-Ture.

As for the danger part: crossed wires, errant electronic signals, e-Jacking, Federal wiretaps, smoking batteries, threatened tariffs on Chinese lithium, local blue laws, and a host of other potential electro-mechanical-political contretemps are all part of the implied morality play here.

In actual point of fact, and it is (for what it’s worth) my studied opinion that, as long as the reader takes everything that Mister Torchinsky writes in “Robot…” as dead-nuts gospel everything will be OK. I believe that everyone should buy a personal copy of this book (perhaps two: one for you and one for that pesky/nose-up, e-snob, holier-than-thou, neighbor with one of those over-price Teslas that doesn’t even have a front grille).

“Robot” is replete with micro-case studies of some very valid (some even hard-earned) history lessons (most of which were never really followed-up on … not even heeded in most cases). Reaching all the way back to Da Vinci and his wind-up / “self-propelled” cart, and following through with the 1866 “Whitehead Torpedo” (which was not a car but an idea for an underwater guided bomb), and on to B.F, Skinner’s***** use of pigeons (live ones … at least for duration of the ride) to guide military missiles in their deadly work.

Torchinsky also quickly includes the (better forgotten) DARPA years of the late ‘90s where the war boys tried to get the college eggheads to come up with some early autonomy at monumental expense with not a whole lot to show for it. These “lessons” and others are discussed and rated here.

Just for fun (or … as we’re often heard to say around the old homestead): Just for s – – t and giggles, I’m going to open this book to five random pages and (with my off-side hand covering my eyes) pick out a random ‘graph or two to give LACar viewers a bit of a foretaste of the show here.

… It’s not robotic, but about as close as I can come in this cold, crowded little backroom “home office” that I should be writing off my income taxes, but that I am, in fact, too lazy to.

Here we go:

EARLY-ON: “The goal of a lot of human inventions is to get out of having to do work. To anyone who has spent any time around humans, this should come as no surprise at all. Work sucks. If I were smart enough to make a machine or program an algorithm to write this book, I would have, no question.”

TALKING LIDAR, RADAR, GPS, ULTRASONIC SENSORS, AND CAMERAS: “Human ability to react at high speeds, gauge stopping distances, sense vehicle weight shifts, and you know, just drive, all while singing along to a Styx album at the top of your lungs is pretty damn impressive. It’s no wonder that it’s such a complex problem to solve for autonomous cars, and its no wonder that we’re not quite there, yet.”

TAKING TESLA TO TASK (SORTA): “Autopilot, like any Level 2 system, has its limitations, often pretty significant ones. I don’t think that Tesla’s Autopilot system is technically unsafe at all; if used properly, it has the potential to help make driving safer, overall. But I do think that Autopilot is conceptually unsafe, as are all Level 2 semiautonomous systems. The problem is that people just don’t work the way that a Level 2 semiautonomous system demands.”

SUMMING IT UP (HUMAN SCALE): “The car created its own cultures and subcultures, and just as we brought automobiles into it, automobiles changed us as well, and some of those changes are worth acknowledging and perhaps even preserving.”

AND A FINAL NOTE OF DEFIANCE: “Driving cars made us all into titans, gave us strong, fast bodies we could use to go places fast and carry huge loads wherever we needed. What the printing press did for ideas and brains, the car did for transportation and our bodies.

Thus author Torchinsky has, in 244 cleanly-printed pages using a secular seraph-style typeface, laid out and laid on much of the hype, heroics, and (very important) hell yeah/hell no aspects of the age of automatic vehicles that we’ve embarked on. Bottles and Genies aside(and cramming toothpaste back in the tube notwithstanding) this guy’s well-educated look into the new is fun, informative, hopeful, reasonably low-tech, and scary. What more could one ask?

In the words of the world’s greatest-ever television pundit and seer, The Amazing Criswell:

“Greetings, my friends…

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

After reading “Robot, Take The Wheel” (twice!) I am more convinced of that than ever. -DS


* the law offices who represent me in all matters of editorial differences of opinion and stuff like that.

** not her real name.

*** make that “driverless”.

**** JT is a big, high muckety-muck editor at the esoteric, innately un-serious and (at times) almost charming “Jalopnik” website) where he has previously broached this very subject.

***** Most applicable Skinner quote that could be found on short notice: The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”

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