To Be Young and Smart and Opposed to Driverless Cars

My 15-year-old son, like most boys his age, is growing interested in getting his driver’s license. So I asked him the other day what he thought about self-driving cars.

He thought they were a bad idea because, if everything were automated, “there would be no challenges left in life.”

See? Even kids know that the research into and development of driverless cars is a waste of time and money.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

It continues to be unclear to me what problem the developers of automated vehicles are seeking to solve–just as it is unclear to my kids and to most Americans.

One of the arguments put forward is that if you don’t have to pay attention to driving, it will allow you to do other things while traveling. This assumes that all driving is a form of drudgery that we desire to be freed from by robots.

But not all driving is drudgery. In fact, driving a sporty car along country roads on cool, sunny days with the wind in your hair is a hell of a lot of fun. Only commuter driving–where your time is sucked to oblivion by the traffic jams–is drudgery. And there are already solutions to that. It’s called public transportation.

Besides, what we want at the end of the day is to feel in control. We harbor fears of airline crashes because we are at the mercy of the pilot and the aircraft. At the same time, we discount the risk of automobiles precisely because we feel we are doing something while at the wheel.

But my son also was touching on a deeper point, one that has been discussed in an engaging way by the author Sebastian Junger. “Life in modern society,” writes Junger, “is designed to eliminate as many unforeseen events as possible, and as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” He goes on to argue that everything in human history leading up to this point has made us want more out of life than just having everything done for us, by robots or otherwise. Having some risk and excitement is healthy.

The automated car cartel is not talking only about safety. (There really is a cartel — click on the link. Really.) The Googles and Ubers of the world say they are pursuing innovation. My son pointed out that we could innovate in other, more useful ways that do not involve autonomous cars and still improve safety and provide other benefits.

For instance, a smart driver’s license could prevent a car from operating if you were drunk or if your license was suspended, two of the biggest safety hazards on the road today. I think this is a great idea, and it’s coming coming from a 15-year-old. Why has this not been done already?

And yet the driverless car proponents continue to live in their own echo chamber, pouring money into technology nobody really wants, and thinking they are improving the world for future generations.

Unfortunately, it is a world that my son has no interest living in.

Updated Oct. 21, 2016, at 11:05 a.m.

When Purpose Came to Luke Skywalker

I remember seeing Star Wars six or seven times in the theaters from the point it was released in May 1977 into the following year.

It made a huge impression on me, probably in part because, being 10 years old, I was at an impressionable age. But lately I’ve been thinking maybe there’s more to it than that.

It is now well known that, when writing his screenplay, one of George Lucas’ many inspirations was the concept of the hero’s journey, as documented through the work of Joseph Campbell. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes from feeling useless and unknown to being the key to saving the galaxy. That’s quite a journey! But it is one that all boys aspire to in various small ways.

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(c) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Every boy wants to feel purposeful. Many boys play at being a hero, whether it is as a knight, a cowboy, a policeman, a fireman, or something else. The story of being a key player in the lives of others–that resonates.

At some point during their teens, boys are expected to find that place where they feel necessary. For some it is on a sports team, for others it is the military or other uniformed service. But for many, that purpose never arrives.

It’s been said that we all must seek our purpose. But for Luke Skywalker, it is important to point out that his purpose came to him. He was ready for it, of course, but had circumstances been different–if R2-D2 did not land on Tatooine, if Princess Leia had failed to load the Death Star plans into the droid, if the plot to steal the Death Star plans had been intercepted–Luke’s Uncle Owen would’ve been happy to hide Luke from the Jedi and continue to interfere with his desires until one or both of them was dead.

Purpose came to Luke, and Luke recognized it when it arrived.

I worry about my children. I fear that they may never find that purpose. It is not so much that they are not looking. Instead, it’s that the purpose may not be there at all.

In a world of seven billion people, it is just not possible for all of us to be key players. And still we crave the fulfillment that only the feeling of being necessary can provide.

The glaze is not as smooth as I once thought. The cracks are beginning to show, the pieces are beginning to fall around. As we commute to the office day after day and drink our coffee, we crave heroism.

go Uber go. yay.

So, Uber has launched its driverless car service in Pittsburgh, under the ruse that it is a benefit to humanity.

According to Raffi Krikorian, Director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, “We think it can make transportation cheaper and more accessible for the vast majority of people.”

Except that there already are cheaper and accessible modes of transportation. They are called buses, trains, subways, vanpools, and trolleys. Public transportation is the cheapest and most accessible forms of transportation for people in urban areas.cityatnight

But what about rural areas, you ask, where there public transit is poor or nonexistent? Good point, but last time I checked, Pittsburgh is not a rural area. Presumably, the delusional Krikorian is talking about Pittsburgh, where Uber is testing this technology, not some hypothetical future service in Wyoming.

Pittsburgh already has public transportation. The Port Authority of Allegheny County operates more than 700 buses and more than 80 light rail vehicles in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. I guess Uber finds this unimportant.

Every dollar spent on driverless cars ($300 million by Uber alone, according to this article) is a dollar not spent on improving the accessibility and reliability of public transportation. And yes, it is a zero-sum game, people.

As I have said before, this plunge into autonomous cars is ill-considered. But it’s the wave of the future! you say. Maybe it is for the Silicon Valley elites, but unlikely for the vast majority of people.

This is not making our lives better, folks. Someone needs to pull the plug.

Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR

It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.

This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.

So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.giphy

The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”

And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”

But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.

NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.

In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.

This is basic economics.

When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.

Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.

But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.

Wanting to Be Seen

There’s a TV commercial for Nationwide Insurance featuring Mindy Kaling. In the commercial, she does all kinds of goofy stuff, until right at the end she says “Can you see me?”

The gist is something about how you are not invisible to the insurance company.

It’s memorable and funny. Sadly, however, this situation is, in many ways, all too true.

In modern societies, a vast majority of people are essentially invisible to each other, passing through their daily lives in buildings and on the streets, anonymously. Never speaking, never touching.

Our lives are empty because of this.

In his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger says “A person living in a modern or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

He goes on to say that, in a style of living that is most ideal to the human mental state, “day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people.”

This is something that has been on my mind in recent years. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to one another, we turn to so-called social media. And a lack of privacy is not always a bad thing. In fact, privacy has an ugly twin. It’s called loneliness, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people.

Wanting to be seen, to be understood, to be truly known is a very human feeling to have. Without it, we find ourselves, according to Junger, in a civilization “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”


I can’t recommend Tribe highly enough. It is a short, easy read, and Junger presents his well-considered thoughts in an engaging fashion. It should be required reading for anyone living in a modern, westernized society.