Thesis: For self driving cars to work, everyone must use them such that the software can adequately predict the behavior of other vehicles. No exceptions. This requires a wholesale change of our American concept of Liberty, resembles the promises of a utopian world that always seems to degenerate into totalitarianism, and Americans are not going to take it.
40 years ago this August I loaded up all my worldly goods into my 1970 Mustang and headed east for Spokane, ostensibly to attend law school at Gonzaga University. Decades later I see I was really setting out to begin my own Homeric epic.
Driving the Mustang was as wild as riding the wild horse. Powered by a huge 351 cubic inch engine built in Cleveland Ohio, the entire vehicle came off the line in Detroit Michigan in November 1969 and simply was too light for the engine. I spun out many times. The drive to Spokane on a seat just a few inches off the floorboard wore out even a young man.
Standard entertainment equipment was only a Philco AM radio and eventually that failed, so I had additional time to think. Other than occasionally moving to the left lane to pass a turnip truck, I had nothing but my imagination to sustain me the long drive across the state with nothing to see but fields of wheat.
During the journey I conceived of a self-driving car that would power me across the state. We may be near to seeing this becoming reality, but I took it one step further. I also perceived that a technological advance which would allow for the vehicle itself to lift from the road and glide across the wheat fields free of any freeway dogleg’s or other angular impediments. I called these jets “lifters”.
I also imagined that the Washington State Patrol would no longer have manned vehicles for traffic control, but instead would have some kind of robotic drone. These wouldn’t fly and spy as the WSP’s 111 drones do today. Instead they would simply be perhaps tricycles or motorcycles which would somehow lay dormant until a vehicle passed at greater than the posted speed, then come to life and pursue.
Of course lifters would be illegal as they require too much fuel to operate in a highly regulated America. That would be the official reason this freedom was curtailed, to save the planet. But of course lifters would be a means by which you can evade the police, which is the unofficial reason for their banning . “Citizen, please pull over”. Yeah well I am afraid I can’t do that Hal. Bye.
While telling myself the stories out on the extended straightaway’s between Moses Lake and Ritzville I mentally designed the vehicle to relieve the boredom. My self-driving car featured a large drive wheel in the rear and was otherwise stabilized by much smaller steering wheels out front and would be called something intimidating, like the Road Warrior. The entire front end was set up as sort of a living room with a card table, entertainment center, and of course a full-service bar.
Somewhat congruent with my imagination I understand that the Volvo 26 Self Drive program car (so named for the 26 minutes of the average commute) does include a feature whereby the “driver” recedes from the controls to a table of some kind automatically as the car begins to travel on the preprogrammed route. I am not entirely sure how he reacts in an emergency.
Cars are not yet flying on “lifters” which can be legislated away, but we are on the cusp of seeing self driving cars. I’m afraid these developments are a disappointment at best, at worst in erosion of Western Civilization. Pre-programed transportation does not inspire a young Ulysses to set out on his own Odyssey. Somehow a future which is all laid out for him by software written elsewhere does not inspire. There has to be some chance, some risks involved. Risks with the software do exist, but the difference is the man is not the driver, who has at least a chance to save himself when things go terribly wrong. Instead he is a passenger and has no role in the outcome.
Maybe I was on to something 40 years ago but I have a more fundamental question for all of us. Do we really want this? Are we not repelled by the notion some software engineer somewhere is in control of our travel, as if we are so among the turnips on the trucks I would pass on Interstate 90? Is there something deep in the American character that jealously guards the freedom of your own destiny?
In the early 1930’s Germany developed a car which could seat 5, get 40 miles the gallon of gas and cost less than 1000 Deutschmarks. The vehicle was called the Volkswagen or the “People’s Car”. Its design and construction were mandated by the new Chancellor, a National Socialist. Socialism is what drove the new leader, referred to as the Fuhrer, to require this new car which would uniformly serve all Germans. His name was Adolf Hitler. He failed to mention the military applications for this vehicle across the Europe and Russian steppes he had in mind.
We are now being offered a new automotive utopia, a one size fits all solution to accidents and traffic; the self-driving car. To work, the evidence is a kind of top down mandate must be imposed on all of us, a new totalitarianism of travel where all the peoples travel needs and desires are collectivized and redistributed much the same as air travel. Like Herr Hitler, it is what they are not telling us we need to think about.
In the new book “Why We Drive; Towards a Philosophy of the Open Road” Mathew B. Crawford offers considerable insight into what we may have already lost as we have gone down the path of automation in cars. Crawford also proposes that to really work these machines will require all of us to give up driving, all vehicles have the same software, no human brains allowed. And, as we have seen the heavy hand of a federal government crush any notion of individuality to create a conformist norm all citizens must adhere to, as in Nazi Germany for example, we, by this effort find we are not what we have been in the past, free Americans. Mandated transportation by the self-driving car is something else, a dependence not many of us would welcome.
Crawford generally objects to a future self-driving car and cites the experience of airliners crashing apparently because the pilots have become too dependent upon automation or worse do not understand it all. Their instincts and skills which understand the physics of flight have been dulled; they tend to want the machine to “fix it” for them. It seems there is this disbelief that the machine would be wrong. Why would this be different for drivers?
I detect among software engineers, particularly those of the latest generation, a certain smugness and an unwillingness to question the software. I liken them to what my generation referred to as a “mad scientist”. Rather than weighing the moral or ethical questions their developments might pose to humanity as a whole and deciding whether to proceed, they proceed because they can without asking the question whether they should. I share Crawford’s fear is the presence of this technology will lead to it’s imposition upon all in the name of safety, but like Herr Hitler with additional benefits to governments which as a matter of history will advance control when and where they can. The reason it must be imposed on all or not at all is it doesn’t work otherwise.
Crawford describes a situation where the Google car, under the spin off title Waymo, ( for liability purposes obviously) , comes to a four-way stop with 3 other drivers approaching from the other directions in normal human operated vehicles. As it is in these human situations, by way hand signals and eye contact a consensus forms almost immediately as to who will go first, then next etc. This common human interaction is not something that they been able to program into a software. As such the Google car software crashes; it cannot adapt the way humans can. And so the car sits there its occupants trapped in traffic.
Uber’s self driving car deployment had a similar problem with the “Pittsburgh Left”, a cultural norm where persons seeking to turn left across on coming traffic are given the courtesy to go first, whereas in other parts of the country those drivers go after traffic has cleared. The software engineers called this delightful bit of humanity a “baffling idiosyncrasy”.
The accidents which have been fatal for self drive all involve rating number 2, automated driving but not autonomous driving. In this level to the system expects the driver to be fully aware at all times of the driving and traffic situation and be ready to take over any moment. Four of these fatalities involved Tesla on autopilot. The driver was killed. One in Tempe, Arizona involved the refitted Volvo operated by Uber killing a pedestrian. We are already dulling our senses and our vigilance, but we have to lose more than skill.
Like all Utopian visions, Waymo promises a new freedom from fear by ending the carnage of people driven cars, declaring 1.35 million people died in car accidents in 2016 on their website. And they can fix it. All you have to do is give up your freedom, be regulated, be a good little socialist for the nation. Give up all those marvelous summer nights with the windows or the top down listening to Steppenwolf or something similar to Magic Carpet Ride and feeling more alive than you have all week. Blend and bend to the Triumph of the Will; The people’s self-driving car. Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.
If you are going to allow yourself to be carted around like so much luggage and have your experience of transport be collectivized government, what does that do for your spirit? Beyond your reflexes being dulled, perhaps called instead to watch more screens with more advertising, which is why Google started this project at all according to Crawford.
Programed from Point A to Point B, how do you spontaneously stop to take in that beach and that sunset? Is it you go to the “help” menu and are placed in a queue ahead of the other turnips, waiting for the off shore worker to walk you through how to stop the car spontaneously? By the time the offshore software worker responds the sun is set. Moment lost.
Behind the wheel, your foot on the acceleration and not on a touch screen, there is a refuge in the road for the spirit and the soul. The individual can focus, take risks and reap rewards of the experience of travel and have control of time and space. Conversely in a self-driving car, how does a man come to the place in life where he can pull over on some highway turn, sit on the hood of his trusted Buick and write his own soliloquy?
There is refuge in the road, a diplomacy for the mind of going, and it getting away, a task and a respite.
There is refuge in the road, the engine roars to life and we accelerate out of the ordinary.
There is refuge in the road, the hills and valley’s roll past the sky open before us and we hurl in the future we define.
There is refuge in the road, we come to a stop at some lonesome turn, contemplate God’s country, and feel most alive.