You stumble across the latest in a long line of news articles lauding self-driving cars and the many riches they promise to bring. You sigh through your nose, calmly place your Keystone Light down on the table, and stare right through your unemployed cousin as you exclaim:
“The day I buy me a driverless car… at’ll be a cold day in hell.”
Your allegiance is unquestionable. Yet, the news keeps coming. And then, the cars themselves. Eventually you find yourself riding in one, bewildered, wondering how the hell this technology got pushed on you. What happened to good ol’ American supply and demand? Ain’t nobody demanded this shit! How did it get here?!
The modern automobile’s list of safety features is a testament to how little your opinion counts as a consumer. Nobody wanted to wear the first seat belts. The idea of airbags scared a ton of buyers early on. Stability control was once a $795 feature that I recall selling exactly zero times during my short stint as a car salesman. Crumple zones? Nah, that doesn’t sound safe.
Yet, all those features and many more can be found in today’s cars, for the same reason we have any organized regulation or law in the world: individuals can’t be trusted to ensure the safety and security of the whole. You might think wearing a seatbelt is a decision you’re making about your own body, but when you get flung through the windshield and have to be scraped off the public pavement by public EMTs who will take you to a public hospital while the public police and public DOT clean up and repair your car’s damage… well, that’s a lot of other people’s lives you interfered with. About $871 billion worth of interference, to be specific. That’s why you don’t get to make decisions about safety.
That said, whatever automotive safety features we’ve implemented to date pale in comparison to those being launched in cars right now. There was a lot of debate about the net benefit of airbags when they first hit the scene… but the net benefit of software that can automatically brake for you if you’re not paying attention, or stop you from changing lanes while another car’s in your blind spot, or prevent a rollover before you can even sense the danger? There’s not much to debate about the value of those safety features, which explains why the Fed and 20 major carmakers agreed to fast-track automatic emergency braking as a production standard for virtually all cars by 2022 — a historic move bypassing standard regulatory processes.
The trend of fast-tracking monumental leaps in vehicle safety will only accelerate, as most of the innovation now becomes a matter of short-cycle software upgrades (over-the-air, at that) which will become increasingly intelligent, eventually leaving you out of the loop for all but the most mundane driving decisions.
Yeah, you read that right: automobiles don’t actually have to become autonomous at all. They can just improve their safety features until the only thing you’re left to do as the pilot is provide general guidance, hold onto the steering wheel, and write a check for the car payment every month. At best, your inputs will be one of many systems’ votes being weighed on-board within milliseconds, which means you’ll be outvoted whenever it matters. That’s not a future you want to be handcuffed to, but that’s what’s in store as safety features improve… and that’s what traditional car manufacturers are gunning for.
I get a kick out of the folks who imply that autonomous transportation will crush the sweet privacy we enjoy today. Are you referring to this privacy?
Nah, the fuzz gets a pass because they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do. You must be referring to privacy from corporate interests I guess?
To be fair, corporations have expensive interests to protect. Can’t blame ’em. So maybe it’s just privacy from other people we’re talking about keeping sacred?
My dear friends and neighbors: cameras are now everywhere. Not just cameras, but cameras attached to software that can algorithmically identify what’s being recorded, or speculate where you’re going based on where you’ve been, or instantly spread the footage to billions of people. Cameras replacing cops and detectives and lawyers.
Did you vote for any of that? Probably not. Do you want to be recorded? Probably not. Yet here it is, and most of us are happy to play the offender — walking around with at least one internet-connected recording device.
Let’s go back to that example of Tesla using its customer’s driving data to prove operator error, and not product malfunction. That’s the kind of intel carmakers badly want to access for a whole slew of reasons, not the least of which is to win lawsuits. And guess what? The manufacturers got it years ago. Yep, already done. Virtually every car sold today has a black box logging more driving data than you could ever argue against with your questionable human memory.
Taking it a step further, Tesla actually uses your driving data to teach its Autopilot how to drive. Obviously it goes without saying that anyone who doesn’t want self-driving cars hitting the roads tomorrow should not buy a Tesla today. But then, you shouldn’t buy a conventional GM or Toyota product either, because they’re trying to use your car’s cameras to improve their mapping data, which is only necessary because they need higher-quality maps for autonomous technology. So remember: don’t buy a car from Tesla, and also don’t buy one from the two largest manufacturers in America. I’m certain the other carmakers will respect your privacy at the expense of their own market share.
We’ve reached the participation stage of the article! Are you ready? Great:
You now know that safety features will make cars of the future virtually accident-proof. Furthermore, you now know that cameras and other surveillance tools will turn lawsuits and traffic violations into mere formalities. So, what do you think that means for your car insurance, my low-tech loving friend?
It means you’re screwed.
This illusion you have of being one of those last real men — the holdouts who plan to drive that stick-shift Mustang off into the sunset, flipping the bird to robocars as you fade away? Not happening. Not on your salary.
Having every other car around yours running its omniscient accident-prevention software means you are a full-time drunk driver by comparison, and that behavior will be documented from all angles. Imagine how your insurance premium might require some adjustment today if you told the company, “I only drive when I’m shit-faced, and I drive a lot. Oh also, I tweet every single movement I make in real-time.” Think near-five-figure premiums. Think like, high enough premiums that it would be cheaper to sell your car at a significant loss than to continue insuring it in the age of automatic collision prevention.
Right now the insurance industry is still in its denial stage, doling out the financial equivalent of a pat on the head for cars with these new software-driven innovations. But that’s not a viable long-term option. The industry premiums will soon become a race to the bottom, and/or the government will repeal the requirement that everyone carry insurance, and/or the companies building self-driving software will accelerate consumer adoption by simply offering to absorb financial responsibility for any and all incidents that might occur. Oh, they already started doing that? Neat.
It seems reasonable to assume that, without the USSR taking up space exploration during the Cold War, America may not have been so aggressive about such pursuits — pursuits that got us to the moon 8 years ahead of the very projection we made in response to the Soviet Sputnik achievement. I say this is a reasonable assumption because the U.S. has done a pretty good job of documenting the hysteria that followed the Sputnik Crisis, which of course launched what we like to teach our kids as The Space Race. Such frenzied competition is reflected nicely in this chart depicting NASA’s share of the federal budget:
But here’s the kicker: at almost no recorded point in U.S. history did the public actually favor funding space exploration.
That’s a two-part takeaway: by thumbing your nose at the revolutionary technology of autonomous vehicles, not only are you exposing a gargantuan gap in your knowledge of what other nations are doing to develop this technology, but you’re also taking up a position that your own government simply doesn’t give two shits about recognizing.
Self-driving cars shouldn’t be treated as a race, but that’s not stopping anyone from doing so. Japan has an aging population in need of a transportation solution. Germany needs to protect the viability of a GDP built heavily on the shoulders of the automotive industry. China has the most potential energy of any economy in the world, and right now it’s being stifled by poor transportation infrastructure. Third-world countries stand to leap-frog the U.S. in transportation efficiency by merely paving a grid of roads and dropping robocar fleets on them.
It’s so easy to scoff at self-driving vehicles when you assume it’s just the fantasy of a few Silicon Valley dweebs. But might you change your tune upon hearing that Japan beat us to the technology and is enjoying massive economic gains because of it? Yeah, you might. You might definitely.
I saved the most offensive for last.
Have you heard of Pokemon Go? It’s a mobile app that came out basically yesterday, and has already turned a certain demographic of drivers into the next Darwin Award nominees.
Pokémon Go Makes Driving A Lot More Dangerous
There are still a handful of years between this world and full autonomy in cars, meaning we have some time before we're…
Gamer crashes car into tree while playing Pokémon Go
Ever since the release of Pokémon Go, people have not been able to take their eyes off their smartphones as they…
These people are actually willing to risk their safety and the safety of others in order to catch a goddamned Bulbasaur on a computer screen. Who are these idiots?
The same idiots who could easily see themselves leaving the driving responsibilities to a machine so they can take up other activities.
See, I sometimes stalk the internet commenters who proclaim, “is anyone asking for these autonomous cars? Nobody I know!” I’m curious as to what kinds of people these folks “know.” As it turns out, their circles of friends tend to appear as like-minded thinkers. You post a Facebook photo of a bald eagle clutching an assault rifle in one foot and Obama’s severed head in another, and 47 of the people you know cheer it on. The rest of your acquaintances just scroll past it, as they know you can’t be reasoned with.
The people you know are nobodies. Do you understand that? You and your 47 comrades have a pathetically microscopic argument in the face of the 30% of Americans who legally, physically or financially can’t drive — and that’s just one example of an opposing perspective. We haven’t even gotten into the fact that autonomous fleet vehicles will be profitable ventures, which commands a lot more influence than a bald eagle meme.
The only valuable opinions are the ones free of personal agendas. If your knee-jerk reaction to the idea of self-driving cars is to say, “not in my backyard” — then test that position using logic rather than your own selfish wants and fears. See how far logic gets you through such an argument before you discover that most people will be much better off, and realize it’s okay that you might not be one of them.
Or don’t, and rekindle that ol’ threat of moving to Canada… where they’re definitely not anticipating an economic revolution at the hands of autonomous cars.