Tip from a self-driving car engineer: don’t choose black

A friend is shopping for a new car. He happens to have been working for the past five years on various Silicon Valley self-driving car efforts. What’s he looking at for a new car for himself? A C8 Corvette! (Why not the product of the finest minds of Silicon Valley? “Can any expensive car have a worse interior than Tesla? Seems impossible. They shaved every possible penny there.”)

What color? “Anything but black,” he replied. “The Zeus Bronze Metallic also might be too close to black.” What’s wrong with black? “It will be invisible to Lidar. The cameras might see it during the daytime, but it will be dangerous to drive at night because self-driving cars won’t see it.”

Readers: What do you think of the C8 in Zeus Bronze?

Compare to the Red Mist Metallic, which is the most popular color:

Some additional thoughts from our deeply embedded source…

When can we expect the promised age of self-driving cars?

Hard to answer as depends on legislation and business. Let’s go backwards and try to guess. What is the long-term future? Is it (a) autonomous cars try to mix into traffic with humans, or (b) human driving is illegal?

To get to (a), are the steps (1) start selling autonomous to fleet operators, (2) start selling autonomous to citizens, (3) stop making new human-driven cars, hence no wheel, and grandfather some human driven cars

For (1) to happen the cars have to get good enough, for (2) to happen the cars have to get cheap enough, for (3) to happen Biden/Harris will need the power to repurpose the roads for the greatest public good/safety (also nice because now the government will know where all of the citizens are going and when)

My guess is that the industry wants (a) for now but the government will want (b), which makes more efficient use of roads, simplifies the software, and also facilitates tracking everyone.

Right now (2021) self-driving car is expensive and dangerous. Reducing expense is possible once more money goes into the ecosystem, but it remains to be seen how safely they operate. Horse/car analogy does not make sense: man-driven flesh vehicle to man-driven ICE vehicle. Self driving is from man-driven vehicle to software-driven.

Why is this challenge so tough for software?

The problem with mixing software-driven and human-driven vehicles is exemplified by “is that guy watching Netflix while driving going to yield to my left turn?” Hard to get that right.

When will a family be able to buy a self-driving car, then, without a steering wheel and mix it up with human-driven contraptions?

Pure guess 25 years

A Tesla 3-owning friend:

Tesla owners think by 2017. Then by 2019. Then by 2020. Now by 2021. They pay $10,000 for “full self driving” software. Tucker Auto was shut down for less of a scam.

An immigrant from Eastern Europe participating in this discussion:

My father had a self-driving car for a decade in the 80s. It was called a company chauffeur. He couldn’t do much in the car because it is still less convenient. If it is a short drive, you won’t accomplish much. Read the news perhaps, or write a few emails. Phone calls you can make now.

The self-driving software engineer saw the biggest competition as coming from Uber and similar human-driven services. As long as low-skill labor in the U.S. remains cheap due to mass immigration, self-driving tech would have to be both inexpensive and nearly perfect to be competitive.

Shifting gears, so to speak, for a moment… what about the fact that cameras are being driven around 24/7 in vehicles that can stream footage up to the cloud? The government can already get footage from doorbell and house-attached cameras (see “Amazon Ring is creating the surveillance complex” by Mark Hurst). Will a police officer in 10 years be able to say “I want to see what was happening at the intersection of 8th and Main at 10:32 pm” and get footage from all of the self-driving cars that happened to be passing that location at the time?

17 thoughts on “Tip from a self-driving car engineer: don’t choose black

  1. I applaud your engineer friend’s car choice. Seriously, no snark. The C8 is probably the last (and the best) of the purely internal combustion engine Corvettes, so get one while you can. I’ve liked the Zeus Bronze from the beginning – it’s a subtle color that somehow softens and blends the sharp/harsh “stealth fighter” lines of the car. In my mind, Corvettes are about bulges and curves, not creases and angular protrusions, so it’s a matter of generational taste. Zeus Bronze looks refined on this car, even if the LIDAR has trouble with it.

    On the other hand, psychological research has shown that the uber-chick-magnet colors are orange/banana shades, so if cruisin’ for jailbait is his intended purpose, he might want to consider the LIDAR-friendly Sebring Orange:


    More on the selfdriving/camera questions later. I am trying to find a way to express what I want to say without sounding like a bomb-throwing Luddite monkey.

  2. Wouldn’t expect black to be a problem. They don’t use lidar anymore, unless vision is now being branded as lidar the same way PID controllers are now artificial intelligence. Machines see edges rather than colors, so a black car in front of a grey road or white sky is perfectly visible.

  3. One thing that became abundantly clear during the recent Texas blackouts: It’s not currently possible to store electricity in any quantity, so if you only have an electric car, it’s fairly trivial for the government to immobilize you. This would become even easier under a “no human drivers” regime. Gas cars really do represent freedom.

    • So would say that Americans in 2010, when vehicles per capita peaked, were much more free than in 1908 when the model T hit the market?

    • @ajm it depends on who you ask. The civil rights movement probably wouldn’t have worked out quite the same way without the ability of the leaders to travel by automobile, for example. Also, I would put it to you that places in the U.S. with a 1908-style population density are quite a bit more free in many ways than those with a 2010-style population density, and, with a car, you might actually be able to get to them.
      Saudi Arabia is currently talking about building a weird city with no roads. Perfect for repression! https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/saudi-arabia-building-100-mile-long-linear-city.

  4. Quickly: In large part I agree with his grim assessment about the government’s prerogative and intention to repurpose the roads for the “greatest public good and safety and tracking/tracing/surveillance.” I think it’s out of our hands already and people are far too apathetic and stupid to stop it. If you asked people: “Do you want a total surveillance state wherein you cannot even leave your own home in your own car without the government watching you every moment?” they would all say “No! And Hell No!” but they are allowing it to happen by degrees and absolutely will not do anything significant to stop it.

    I also base it on the statement by the 2018 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Akira Yoshino, who probably let a little too much slip when he said:


    “After around 2025, when Yoshino predicts EVs will make up about 15 percent of new car sales worldwide, the auto industry will likely see electrification incorporated into car-sharing and self-driving vehicles, he said. “The ideal style for the future is people don’t own a car and a self-driving vehicle is coming whenever anyone wants to use the service.”

    He’s saying that because he’s talking with the policy people who are looking 25 and 50 years down the road, and they don’t want you driving your own car, owning your own car, fixing your own car, or going anywhere they don’t know about in your own car. Except for playthings of the rich.

  5. I think the Zeus Bronze looks fine.

    But given the demographics of what I imagine the typical C8 [average cost about $80,000] buyer to be, it’s gotta be red.

  6. In our life time and into the next generation, I think the closest we will ever get to a so called self-driving cars is what The Boring Company [1] is doing which is basically a personal / private railroad car [2]. You drive from your home, to the nearest Boring Highway entry point and let Boring Highway do the rest for you up to your exist destination where you take over again.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boring_Company
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_railroad_car

  7. The self driving revolution will be driven by the trucking industry. There is a huge economic incentive here: no 10 hr/day driving time limit and no need for a driver.

    • Remotely piloted trucks will be successful. Makes much more sense from a labor and technology standpoint. It is way too hard to program all the possible permutations of various yards and freight loading and unloading.

  8. If anyone is interested in retrofitting their vehicles for Level 2 self-driving I can recommend comma.ai’s openpilot system: https://comma.ai/

    Comma.ai sells a kit that plugs into the CAN bus and uses their ML based computer vision plus the vehicle radar to create an excellent self driving experience. The software is open source, and has frequent updates. I have taken it from Boston to Key West and back and had my hands off the wheel for about 85% of the drive. That was a few years ago, and it’s gotten much better. I can’t wait to get into my Camry and have it driving while I sip my coffee on the way to work,

    The video from the system is uploaded to comma.ai, and used to improve the model. They even have a face tracking model to ensure you don’t get too distracted. You can choose not to upload the face tracking video.

    The guy running the company – George Hotz – is a pretty interesting character, and was the first to jailbreak the iPhone back in the day.

  9. Other random Vette thoughts. I have to give them credit: Chevrolet has produced a build/price interactive website that actually works in 2021. As you click through and magically convert your $60,000 C8 into a $97,000 C8, you can go back to previous sections at any time and easily change your mind! The site faithfully remembers your choices and the images update correctly. This is better than a lot of other “build and price” websites I’ve seen, wherein changing the exterior color choice causes you to have to start all over again if you have already chosen the lug nut covers.

    My final color choices are a tie between the Zeus Bronze and the Shadow Grey Metallic. I’m getting old. I’m still debating about the Z51 suspension, but I took the Magnetic Selective Ride Control. Mine’s a convertible. I don’t think I’m going to track this car, also because I’m getting old. And I have to say – whew! – outside of some custom Porsche websites, I’ve never seen so many accessories. TWO tool kits! But that’s part of the charm.

    Anybody got $97 large laying around? It’s a good cause.


  10. Social credit scores will dictate how far and where you can go, they are drooling over the possibilities. That said I don’t see it happening unless we are post apocalypse with infrastructure and tech remaining. Seems unlikely when we live in a country at risk of indoor plumbing going away.
    What will probably happen is they will set the road roombas free and make it a felony to collide with one regardless of fault. We will have pile ups of meatbag operated cars so the road roombas can pass on by unscathed by the accident they caused.

    • I love Popular Mechanics. There are so many wrinkles and developments in the LIDAR world, it’s easy to get blinded by all the science that’s going on. It turns out that with the right kind of paints, you can probably make your black car visible enough for LIDAR to work. No word on whether Chevrolet is on to this.


      I think the big thing is that whatever coating or color is on the car, it reflects well in the 850-1550 nanometer range. The visible spectrum is 450-750 so this strikes me less as a “black vs. white” problem than a “does the paint on the vehicle reflect well in the near-infrared?”

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