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The Insanity of Driving

Recently, I was driving back to the South Bay from San Francisco when I got caught in some stop-and-go traffic, which is a common experience in the Bay Area. I was on the 101, a freeway (motorway in the UK), which is at least six lanes in either direction. When I first came to the US, the widest motorway I had ever seen was the M25, which circles London and which, at that time, had only three lanes in each direction: “the slow lane, the overtaking lane, and the fast lane.” God help you if you either went slow in the “fast lane” or fast in the “slow lane.” In fact, God help you if you stayed for too long in the “overtaking lane.” In UK traffic, you’re either in-the-right or in-the-wrong, and the game is to prove that you’re always the former and everyone else is always the latter. “That’s how it works in all countries!” You tell me. Well, in Canada it’s the other way around.

I used to joke that you could get lost while crossing the road in the US because the edge of the endless sea of tarmac (called blacktop in the US) existed somewhere over the horizon. In any case, you probably shouldn’t try crossing the freeway on foot, or on anything else.

Are you now wondering what tarmac is? I was, so I looked it up. Tarmac is short for tarmacadam. Macadam is a type of road construction developed around 1820 by Scottish engineer John London McAdam in which small angular stones are crushed together to form a road surface. Tarmacadam is macadam bonded together even more strongly using tar and sand, and was patented by Edgar Purnell Hooley in England in 1902.

Here I am, sitting in my car, looking at all of these other cars, when I realize that each of these expensive pieces of equipment contains at least one person, a person who is peering out of the windshield (windscreen in the UK), either desperately trying not to crash or desperately trying to find another driver to blame for their frustration.

If those cars have a mean value of $10K, a average end-to-end spacing of 5.4864 meters (18 feet in the US) and the traffic jam extends for just one mile, then the equipment that is stuck on this section of freeway represents approximately 17.6 million dollars, enough to buy 3.67 Koenigsegg CCXR Trevitas. The Trevita is a 1,004 horse-power, Swedish mid-engined sports car. But that wouldn’t be possible, because even though Koenigsegg planned to build three of these beasts, only two were ever produced. That was a weird little tidbit of trivia, wasn’t it?

As Randy Pausch said in his famous Last Lecture, which currently has been viewed more than 17 millions times on YouTube, “People are more important than things.” So lets forget about the cars and talk about the people. In that one traffic snafu, at least 1,760 human beings, each with a skull containing a version of the most complex learning and inference device ever created in and by the universe, had been deployed to carefully operate two pedals and a steering wheel. I don’t particularly value one human’s time over another, but from a human-resource standpoint, many of these people would have been some of the most innovative and highly-paid in the world.

I don’t commute. I either do what I need to do at home, or I travel five minutes by bicycle or motorcycle through relatively traffic-free streets to where I work. You could say I’m privileged, but as Mr Money Mustache points out, when you actually calculate the cost of living far from work, though it might seem less expensive, it’s actually, overall, usually much more expensive. I guess, I’m privileged to save my time and money by not commuting.

Sometimes my wife and I forget that rush hour exists, and we set out in our car intending to get somewhere. At those times, we are accidentally caught in hours of stop-and-go traffic, Bay Area traffic that now rivals that of LA in it’s raw ability to waste human potential. At those times I marvel at the insanity of corporations expecting employees to commute for between one and several hours per day so that they can be present at a physical place of work.

Of course, some jobs require physical presence, such as wait staff, chefs, janitorial staff, construction workers, massage therapists, and medical doctors. In the future, robotics and telepresence will free even these workers. However, even now, a large proportion of employees are knowledge workers, and many of those people stuck in metal boxes using their best-in-universe processors to operate two pedals and a steering wheel are headed to work to do exactly what they could have done at home.

It’s mind-boggling that corporations usually encourage, or at least don’t discourage, this behavior. The most valuable resource of most modern companies is the engagement and creativity of their employees. Why would you want your employees to burn away hours of their life commuting. That’s time that they could be exercising, or sleeping, or meditating, or having sex, or spending quality time with members of their family or friends. That’s time that they could be working on side-projects, or reading, or relaxing, or gardening, or wind-surfing, or SCUBA diving, or learning to fly a plane, or hiking in the wilderness. Any one of these other activities could recharge and inspire their employees, could refresh them and prepare them to do their very best work.

Why on earth would any leader want to subject their employees to sitting in traffic? Why would they not build inexpensive housing near to work, or encourage working from home? Why would they not bring people together now and then for co-working? Why is there such intense stupidity being demonstrated by these corporations? Many of these corporations are publicly-traded companies. Why are they not driven by profits? With knowledge-work, what’s good for a company is also what’s good for the employees and what’s good for the employees is also good for the company. Why would any organization want to damage and degrade its most valuable assets?

Of course, it is possible to listen to audiobooks or to engage in phone conversations while driving, and I suspect that most people don’t utilize their commute time as efficiently as they might, but there’s only so much audio-book-listening anyone can benefit from. Before long, anyone would be audio-booked out.

I remember once seeing a video on YouTube about an app that a UK advertising agency had created for its own employees, and that it had subsequently released for general sale. This alarm-clock app addresses the “problem” of employees arriving late (whatever that means) for work because of adverse weather conditions. It tracks the weather at night, and wakes you up if there is snow or ice, so that you can get stared earlier. This ensures that nobody arrives at work “late.” I assume that all these creative people arrive at work at 9 am on the dot, tired if it snowed, so that they can shuffle to their desks and do the same work they could have done at home.

Why not celebrate the adversity of the weather? Why not have snow days at home with your kids? Why not enjoy the variability in arrival times? Why not schedule meetings at or after 11 am? Why not encourage slower driving on snow and ice? Why not encourage more sleeping and dreaming? It frustrates me to see people putting energy into exactly the wrong things. You don’t get world-class performance and creativity by controlling employees. You get world-class performance and creativity by trusting, encouraging, inspiring, and challenging employees.

Which brings us to self driving cars. A hundred years ago, it was miraculous to have thousands of tiny explosions per second harnessed inside small metal boxes (engines) that enable cars to propel people much faster and further than they could run. However, today, with the advent of electric cars, this technology is starting to seems silly, and even silly when the cars are controlled by humans. I work on autonomous vehicles, and I know that even though the technology to direct cars autonomously is cutting edge, it actually requires a relatively basic level of artificial intelligence.

We don’t pump water by hand. We don’t generate our own electricity using bicycles connected to dynamos. We don’t usually wash our clothes by hand. That each person owns their own car, and that each person has to manually operate it, is starting to seem archaic.

I recently bought a new car. Well, it’s a used car, but it’s new to me. Part of me is really happy with the dashboard, and steering wheel, and the instrument display, which is all now rendered onto a single, large LCD screen behind the steering wheel. At the same time, another part of me feels embarrassed knowing that in a few years the manual controls on my car will seem like pointless vestiges of a bygone era.

“Your car has a steering wheel? That’s really weird,” my friend will say.

“Yeah, I don’t use it anymore, and I intend to remove it to make more room.” I’ll respond. “What’s even more weird is that it runs on gasoline and that it belongs to me.”