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.

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.

Poison Gas, Driverless Cars, and You

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist who discovered the method for creating synthetic ammonia for fertilizer went on to invent the chlorine gas used to devastating effect by the Germans in World War I. He did it because he loved his native country and believed in their ability to win the war.

In the 1930s, a medical scientist was hired by the leading manufacturers of asbestos products to conduct a study of the health risks. He downplayed the negative effects of asbestos exposure on workers at factories and job sites, believing that American industrial progress and fidelity to authority was more important than the human lives being put at risk.

The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did so out of a sincere belief that they were doing their duty to protect America.

Should these people have stopped somewhere in the process and reflected on what, exactly, they were doing? I think they should have.

Science is not always pure, and technology has a way of finding its own worst use.

I think about these things as I read stories of the mad rush to invent driverless cars. We are due for some self-reflection about whether this really is the direction we, as a society, should be taking.

Google's Chris Urmson

Google’s Chris Urmson driving down the wrong path.

The scientists and technicians who are developing autonomous vehicles sincerely believe in the potential benefits of their work, I’m sure. They explain how it will bring mobility to the elderly or the disabled, save countless lives by avoiding car crashes, improve fuel efficiency, and require less space for parking lots.

Who could be against that, right?

Except that driving a car is, most of the time, a solitary act. Single-occupant vehicles on any given workday make up more than half of cars on the road. With estimates ranging as high as 76 percent, it is clear that we still prefer to drive alone.

And other emerging transportation technologies, such as the ride-sharing models that are being pushed by for-profit companies Uber and Lyft, perhaps are not as sustainable as they want us to believe.

In this world filled with countless ways to communicate and travel, we are still consuming resources and are more lonely than ever.

So instead of creating yet more ways of being alone, society instead should be putting additional effort into social means of transportation–bicycles, buses, trains and other forms of transit. It is only by looking each other in the eye day in and day out that we maintain our ability to be civil and retain our essential humanity. That, and it uses less roadway.

The driverless cars that some believe will help humankind may instead be individual coffins.