Viability of Self Driving Cars

They are all we can talk about lately, machines which will take the burden away from our lives to move ourselves from one location to the next. That is our main goal for a car anyway. (Though some of us want to do it in luxury and/or speed). To leave one location, spend some time, to get to another location... well, at least until we figure out transporters from Star Trek. The reasons for self driving cars is layered. The main reason seems to be safety, yet when you dig deep into the individual reasons for people who want them, it comes down to “I want to be more productive with my time”, and “safety”. I will address these two separately. Before that, ask yourself.. why have we become so obsessed with productivity? What is it about our current culture that wants to escape the current moment in time, to be in another moment? Is our job as a human to produce 24hours, think 24hours, be mentally attached 24hours?

Let’s discuss the rationale issues with self-driving cars. First, partially self-driving trucks have been around for almost a decade. This is nothing new. The usefulness and reliability with a car/truck/18 wheeler with an automatic pilot on the highway is very feasible. However, a human must always be at the wheel (for the foreseeable future). We are 15–50 years away from the attempt at having machines be fully automated without the use of any human occupant. Before you say why 50 years… I ask you to think of the flying car, jet-packs, and even recently, the global buzz around Google Glass being worn by everyone by now. That idea fizzled away when people had a reality check on it’s practicality. Are we looking for novelty, or to solve a major problem with our lives? We have to discuss feasibility in all realms, not just technology.

Why? Am I just being a naysayer because it’s fun to play devil's advocate? No, we all want to advance, and see our society advance. However, we have to view the practicality of advancement within our current awareness. Our vision of the future can not leave out particular realities we deal with today, or tomorrow.

The main issue with a self-driving car is the liability. All it will take is one child or adult to be run over by a car which might malfunction, and it could run a big problem for the company. Now you might say that humans cause more errors and accidents… yes individually and randomly. However, could humans all coordinate an accident or malfunctioning in their brakes at the same time? An automated 2 ton piece of plastic and metal surely can… and it is always in the vicinity of human bones wrapped in a soft thin layer of skin. This is not to say we will never have self-driving cars, but that the amount of calculations, programming, and safety protocols that need to work at all times for a car to navigate an urban environment is astronomical. Sure in a rural environment, it could perform fairly well. Though do we really need to buy a new car to do that? Aren’t we supposed to care about the environment? Could self-driving cars just be a tool to sell more cars… why are older model Tesla's not upgradable with new software? Could it be that Tesla is in the business to make money as much as Chevrolet is? (I will address this later).

Humans cause many accidents, but a machine malfunction is different, especially if multiple machines malfunction running the same operating system. Not that it’s just different from a legal standpoint, but it’s different due to our particular society. One might say that kids died in plane crashes 50 years ago when planes first flew… yes, we also road in the back of a pickup truck with the dog. Yet today, you need a child car seat until you’re about 10 years old. Our values have changed. Up until the late 90’s, people still rode around with their kids in their laps. Times change, laws change, people's values change. Thus this new era of technology has to conform to current standards of extreme safety and regulation. We can’t have two sets of rules, just because we are enamored by the exponential function of technology. By that I am inferring to the public's amazement, in 2017, to a phone which is better than last years. Moore’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law ) is common knowledge, and if it’s not, it should be to whomever owns a modern smartphone. Why are we still like wide-eyed children, amazed that a car might drive itself? Or that an application program with GPS access, can connect you with someone who has a car and is willing to give you a ride (Lyft/Uber)?

Let’s get to the environmental costs of this new tech. If, companies like Google, Apple, and Tesla would make systems to retrofit older cars to be self driving, then we should all invest in their ideas. Though they are not, they are introduction new technology for the purpose of selling new cars… new products for their cycle. The cycle of planned obsolescence still exists; new cars are still a major burden on our environment with the need for new raw materials… materials we are obtaining by multiple wars, and destruction of ecosystems and people’s land. We would fight wars for oil, now we are fighting them for Cobalt and Lithium (Africa and Afghanistan).

Even in today’s marketplace, no car manufacturer sells you a car that can get software upgrades to the newer future systems. You can look it up on many YouTube videos about new cars and how they make them unable to take upgrades. Their systems are sold to the consumer to be tested, the consumer tests the bugs… they have an industry understanding for it, which is also used to sell new cars. Cars are still designed to become obsolete in 3–7 years. Is this eco-friendly? Isn’t technology supposed to push us away from consumerism? Or is “Tech” the new Marketing gimmick for this current generation of consumers? Throwing away at a much higher and faster rate than before.

Anyone in the market for a Tesla or Prius, mainly because it’s “Eco-friendly”, who is replacing their late model 2010 car is adding more waste to the planet than driving that 2010 car for another 20 years. So let’s be honest, let us leave the “Captain Planet” hero stuff out of this conversation. What we want, as consumers, is the “New” thing. The new gadget, the thing that will make our lives easier and more fun… environment and efficiency be damned.

Now let us discuss being more “productive” with our time, rather than driving. That’s a very compelling argument since driving can be taxing on our minds and bodies. We would all love to lay down in the car and take a stretch while on a 6 hour road trip... or even a 30 minute drive to the office. Maybe spend that 30 minutes texting friends and catching up, or sending emails for work. On this front, I can’t make much of an argument. It’s compelling to agree with productivity, also with the fact that people have become worse at driving and following the rules of the road in the last 10–15 years (mainly because they are texting/talking on the phone). Human error in driving can be fixed easily by introducing policy for less time between drivers license testing. By forcing a driving test after any major accident. 
As for “productivity”… maybe their are 10–15% of the population that would use this free time to be productive with work or self improvement. However, how many of you have been on a flight, then seen almost everyone watching a movie or playing a game on their phone or tablet? Shouldn’t the logic that people will use their time in a self driving car to be more productive best apply to a plane trip more than a car trip? What better to correlate it to than an aluminum can that takes you from point a to point be while something/someone else navigates?

10-15 years ago, we thought person to person business meetings would be gone and the airline business would crumble. There were even large scale movies about it (Up In The Air 2009). Yet now we see more business travel than before, because technology can only do so much. Self-Driving cars will be here one day, my guess is much later than sooner. The industry wants you to believe it’s just around the corner… but they said that about Google Glasses too.

Thank you for reading!