Questioning a Driverless Future

imageI was in Dallas last week attending the Congress for the New Urbanism’s CNU 23 Conference, turning over the question “how do we build places people love” with professionals as enthusiastic about city design as myself. One concept that kept popping up was that of the driverless car. What bothered me about the surrounding discussion though was this attitude of inevitability regarding our driverless future. No one seemed to be stopping to ask whether such technology actually provides a net benefit to our quality of life. To be sure, such cars may provide several benefits from a possible reduction in traffic fatalities to better mobility for the elderly, disabled and others isolated by our auto-oriented society. But what about the potential pitfalls? Have we considered those? Let me just share a few unanswered questions of mine ranging from the concrete to the philosophical:

  • How does this affect bicycles? When I pull up to a four way stop as I’m biking to work in the morning, I often make eye contact with surrounding drivers to silently negotiate who will proceed. If those cars become driverless, how do I accomplish this simple task? Will the already precarious mix of cars and bikes currently on the road become even more difficult to manage? 
  • What are the consequences of mechanical failure? Anyone who has a car knows that even the best of them requires some maintenance from time to time. Windshield wipers need replacing, tires get flat, windshields crack, oil leaks, and starter motors die – and those are just the issues I’ve been facing recently! When these parts fail today, the car simply doesn’t go. But what happens to a driverless car when a piece of equipment that is not part of the car’s functionality, but rather its judgment fails? When the sensors don’t work right or there is a glitch in the computer? I can only imagine such mechanical failures would be far more dangerous for everyone on the road. 
  • Who’s liable? So if a self-driving car gets into an accident and someone gets hurt, who’s liable? Currently, individual drivers carry auto insurance, but surely they can’t be held liable for the actions of the car if they are no longer the drivers. At the same time, I can’t imagine car manufacturers moving forward with self-driving cars if it meant they had to take on the liability for all the self-driving cars on the road. To this end, I would expect that they would lobby Congress for a legal exemption – which leaves the question who’s held accountable when something bad happens? Will victims have a way to receive justice?
  • What happens to professional drivers? A quick review of our recent history offers some fairly concerning lessons when we talk about replacing people with machines. The tractor, for instance, has had a devastating effect on rural life, as shown in this mini-documentary on the “most unequal place in America.”     

    While a whole village was once needed for harvest, today very few people are necessary. With no work to do, that population has been displaced to our nation’s cities, forever impacting the rural life that was once the heart of our nation. Could driverless cars have a similar impact on urban life? If so, where would those displaced workers go?  In the words of Wendell Berry in his essay “Money vs. Goods”,

    “As the original Luddites saw clearly and rightly, the purpose of industrialism from the first has been to replace human workers with machines. This has been justified and made unquestionable by the axiom that machines, according to standards strictly mechanical, work more efficiently and cheaply than people. … But to replace people by machines is to raise a difficult, and I would say an urgent, question: What are the replaced people to do? Or since this is a question not all replaced people have been able to answer satisfactorily for themselves, What is to be done with or for them? This question has never received an honest answer from either liberals or conservatives, communists or capitalists.” 

    Considering 84% of taxi drivers in New York City are immigrants, it stands to reason that such advancement in technology will have a disproportionate impact on certain socio-economic demographics. And so it’s not a stretch to think that a technology that eliminates jobs that currently provide an economic pathway for so many people would just further the gap between rich and poor in this country.

  •  Is this where machines start thinking for us? Since the industrial revolution, machines have served as tools to help us do things. But driverless cars represent a very different type of machine – one that is designed to replace human thought and judgment with that of machines. So instead of machines being a tool that people are in control of, these machines are to become both the thinkers and the doers in a new world of artificial intelligence.  Now movies have discussed this possibility for years, and from Terminator to The Matrix to I, Robot none of them have ended well. And it’s not just the Luddites who are warning us about this stage of machines, either. Even Elon Musk, Steven Hawkings and Bill Gates have acknowledged the dangers to humanity that come from unharnessed artificial intelligence.

I hear talk all the time about “progress, progress, progress”, but I agree with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre when he says in his book After Virtue that we can’t talk about what is “good or bad”, “right or wrong”, or “progress and decline” without first discussing and determining our purpose.  I love the movie Wall-E because it so poignantly portrays the frightful vision of a humanity whose purpose is ease, convenience, and consumption.

When that is the goal, mindless entertainment and the enabling of sloth may be considered “progress”. But if we returned to the ancient Greek concept of Eudaimonia, the flourishing of the human being, as our purpose, then “progress” would look very different. Then the question would be “does the dawn of artificial intelligence in the form of driverless cars get us closer to human flourishing and a higher quality of life or doesn’t it?”  Call me sentimental, but it’s just a question I think we should ask.

3 thoughts on “Questioning a Driverless Future

  1. Pingback: Skeptical about Driverless Cars – Am I the Only One? | techynews2015

  2. Those are all important questions to ask. The mechanical failures don’t scare me as much as the software failures, though. It will probably be pretty easy to figure out if there’s a problem with a sensor during operation, but testing for software correctness is a difficult problem. Software defects are a part of life, and even systems that have been operating for years are hiding them. Of course, when my software has a defect, it just means complaints from customers. If self-driving car software has a defect, it could mean fatalities. If there is a pending self-driving car revolution, I doubt it’s going to come all at once largely for this reason. I think we’re likely to see only certain roads initially where self-driving cars are permitted and have that gradually expanded.

    There is definitely a lot of good that could come out of self-driving cars in urban areas, though. I believe it could actually reduce personal car ownership and even our dependence on car travel in general. Car sharing becomes far simpler when the car can actually drive itself to pick someone up. A married couple who both drive to work daily and have children in school could possibly get by with a single self-driving car since it can drop everyone off and pick them up when they’re ready. A few neighbors may even be able to share a car or two.

    Having a car that just sits in a driveway or parking lot for the 23 hours a day that you’re not using it would suddenly seem like a huge waste. That leaves a potential market for an Uber-like service that puts your car to work while you’re out of the vehicle, or driverless taxis could end up being cost-effective enough to lead people to forgo their own cars altogether. And when your car’s not sitting in your driveway all the time, you’ll probably start to use your feet more often to get places.


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