porcelainandporcupines

On self-driving cars

Posted on: March 3, 2016

Despite the many reports extolling their safety, I must admit that my concerns about self-driving cars are not in any way safety-based. I mean, developers and engineers can trot out all the stats they want to demonstrate that their algorithms will make better safety decisions than people; I have no reason at all to doubt them, other than that they’re attempting to sell a product and their entire pitch for said product is that I make poor decisions. Certainly nothing there to rub anyone the wrong way.

Hurt pride aside (also the name of my new band, covering break-up songs from the ’90s), there are bigger issues than safety that have to be addressed here. Yes, I have concerns about the other drivers on the road, particularly the folks who apparently don’t think a snow storm and reduced visibility are any reason to slow down; but I would wager that safety isn’t a real compelling issue for them either.

And that, I think, is where the self-driving car misses the point. Consider, for a moment, the Latin name for the car: the automobile. Auto, you no doubt recall, is a fancy way of saying self, and a reminder that the very purpose of the car is to be self-driven. Except that, in the original, the self is a human. The automobile has been such a whopping success – detrimental though it’s been to the environment and the well-being of small animals and often pedestrians of varying sizes; another sure sign that safety is not nearly as meaningful as the folks at Google seem to think – not just because it takes less effort than walking, or because it is eminently more practical than owning a horse, not to mention less gruesome when the time comes to take one out of commission; but because it puts the person front and center. Or, more accurately, slightly to the left.

Either way, no longer are we reduced to being merely the captain of our fate.. Even a simple trip to the grocery store, we get to be the captain of an actual ship (well, ship-ish), and even if we don’t have the vast expanse of space or the ocean before us, we are still the ones to lay in a course and we are the ones to make it so.

And that, I think, is the crux of the underwhelming response that has greeted the self-driving car; it’s not just that we are prone to ignore any threat that isn’t imminent; it’s that we object to the diminution that comes from the redefining of self.

Because the biggest question that I have, when I imagine the self-driving car, is: what am I supposed to do with that time? Do I just sit there like some schmuck staring at my phone while the car makes all the decisions? Maybe it’s my public transportative roots coming through, but if I’m not actually driving I expect there to be other people around, giving me someone to look at, people to ponder or have some kind of interaction with; something that makes it seem like I am active participant in this endeavor.

In a way, I have those interactions as a driver, too. I nod along with the other drivers when they decide to pass me (because, it bears repeating, I’m not going to go any faster no matter how close you get); I graciously allow other people merge on the highway; and I feel grateful when they let me change lanes. And sure, I get frustrated when they don’t. But all of that gets wiped away if the cars are the ones yielding the right of way, simply because it makes the most sense to do so.

What I imagine with the self-driving car is a sterile bubble of isolation. Is that accurate? Maybe not. But that’s what the people behind the self-driving car have to address. People don’t purchase cars to be passengers. If the self-driving car is to be successful, it has to present some sort of active value to the actually self-aware entity it is designed to transport. Like the moving sidewalk or escalator, that still allow people to be mobile, if they choose, just much faster. Because otherwise, it’s just people sitting, by themselves, in a weird little pod. It may be safer than the automobile, but it’s also sadder.

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