The computer algorithms that pilot self-driving cars may soon be considered the functional equivalents of human drivers. That’s the early opinion of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—and so begins our slow-burn acquiescence in the battle of man versus machine.
I don’t have a problem with the basic concept of a computer-driven vehicle that transports human passengers. I’ll step inside your monorail without protest. I’ll even jump inside your robot-driven race car on a closed-circuit track. But when self-driving cars start making us dumber, and less alert, and less involved with transportation in a tactile, human way, then I have to sound the alarm.
Disclosure: I’m a hardcore driving enthusiast. Any movement in the automotive industry that threatens to take away my steering wheel and replace it with an in-flight entertainment display gives me cause for concern. And after experiencing just how much difficulty a car has with autonomous parking—simple perpendicular parking—I have new concerns about autonomous driving on a mass, infrastructural scale.
But my apprehension really coalesced last week, morphing from cautious observation to free-flowing dread-think. It all started with a reader’s tweet:
Floaty chairs? It was an opaque reference until one of our writers suggested Virgilio Corrado was making a connection between driverless cars and the high-tech hover vehicles from the movie Wall-E.
I want you to take this in. What you see below is a floaty chair. It’s sort of like a cross between a first-class airline seat, a self-driving Google Car, and those airport sleeping pods where you can cocoon yourself in quiet remove from the meddling masses.
So that’s the floaty chair. It’s currently just a whimsical flight of Pixar fancy, but if you squint your eyes and think bad thoughts, it becomes something much more troubling: the natural evolutionary extension of the driverless car. Thanks to Google, Tesla, and all the other manufacturers investing in a driverless tech, we might be looking at a dystopian future as disengaged blimp people who’ve lost all ambulatory function.
Now, obviously, the core promise of autonomous driving has huge upsides. First, if the entire commuting population traveled the roads in driverless cars, we’d probably all be safer. If nothing else, the term “drunk driving” would become an anachronism.
Second, most people don’t even want to drive. They’d rather spend their time doing something much less stressful, and I get that. Why pay attention to lane markers and stop signs when you could be sitting in a passenger seat, answering BuzzFeed quizzes? For many people, autonomous driving would be the ultimate life hack. Its appeal cannot be underestimated.
But, still, indulge me. Whether they’re full-on floaty chairs or something a bit less morbid, driverless cars raise three red flags.
1: The slow, agonizing death of high-performance street cars
Driverless cars pose an existential threat to high-performance car culture as we know it. It may take 20 or even 30 years, but when the big auto manufacturers have invested all their money and intellectual capital in the design of floaty chairs, there won’t be any motivation to create human-driven, high-performance vehicles.
There won’t be a 2036 version of the Ford GT350R. There won’t be a 2046 version of the BMW M2. And there definitely won’t be a 2056 version of the Alfa Romeo 4C, a car that can barely justify itself in 2016. These cars won’t be designed and manufactured, because (a) too few people will know how to drive them, and (b) there won’t be any business case to keep iterating on an obsolete format. The world’s driving infrastructures—our roadways, our traffic laws, our insurance rates, our very philosophical positions on driving—will have left car culture as we know it behind.
Sure, there will still be cars designed for human pilots. Small, boutique manufacturers like Radical, KTM, and Ariel can probably withstand the tidal forces of history, and perhaps even thrive. They’ll be making non-street-legal (and very, very expensive) cars for track days and club racing. We might even find the Fords and BMWs making hyper-expensive track day specials—and they won’t need to be cheap, because the concept of an affordable halo car will have disappeared.
But car enthusiasm and car culture starts with relatively affordable high-performance street cars, not race cars. And in our floaty chair future, mainstream motor vehicles will be neither fast, nor tunable, nor fun to drive on a race track (if “drivable” in the 20th Century sense at all).
2: The utter fallibility of digital tech
Nothing about my experience with digital technology tells me that driverless cars will be reliable or even as safe as futurists would have us believe. When’s the last time your Internet provider suffered a mass network outage? When’s the last time hackers compromised a consumer-facing security network on a grand, epic scale? When’s the last time your phone’s mapping app pointed you in the wrong direction?
Computers work wonderfully… until they don’t work at all. In our driverless car future, I see intermittent system failures, with in-car hardware crashing as often as our phones, tablets, and PCs. I see passengers paralyzed in the middle of the road with no backup system for getting home. Because, remember: Even if their steering wheels and gas pedals actually work, tomorrow’s passenger won’t know how to actually drive.
One-off system crashes are a best-case scenario. Imagine instead a mass platform attack on the floaty chair network. I see thousands upon thousands of people, stuck in their vehicles. Their phones will run out of battery power, they’ll finish their last Cheez-Its, and they’ll just sit there, helpless and defeated, on the street.
3: The dulling of our sharpest senses
In the Wall-E dystopia, floaty chairs don’t just make us fat and lazy. They also make us complacent and mentally thick. And this is what concerns me most about driverless cars: humankind’s voluntary capitulation to the easy way out. Now, I’m going to get metaphorical here, so follow me.
The open road is the last environment where we’re forced to stay alert, watch our backs, and practice mission-critical human survival. Even 200 years ago, ground travel forced us to worry about animal attacks, finding fresh water, and protecting ourselves from exposure. (Please see The Revenant. It’s great.) But, today? If we want to keep our survival skills sharp, we get behind the wheel of a car.
Driving forces us make a new life-or-death judgement call every few seconds. It leashes our brains to a prehistoric past. If I don’t hit my brakes in time, I die. And if I don’t keep within my lane markers, you die. To this extent, driving also teaches us how to get along. Every four-way stop is a social negotiation. I see you, you see me, we cannot avoid each other, and we’re gonna work this out.
But driverless cars? And floaty chairs? They basically tell us, no, just keep sipping on your corn syrup macchiato. We’ll wake you when you’ve reached your destination.
Proceed carefully, NHTSA
At the end of the day, I really can’t defend my right to drive a performance car. In reckless hands, they do cause accidents, and they’re not good for the environment. But let us at least agree that performance cars are a very special kind of art—a perfect marriage of design and engineering—and losing them forever would be as great a loss as the death of architecture, or mechanical watches, or any other synthesis of form and function that tells us more about the human spirit.
As for the NHTSA? Well, it does very important work, and of course it must update its regulations to safely manage traffic in a driverless car future. But its movement to upgrade artificial driving intelligence to people status only underscores just how much we have to lose on a raw, human, soulful level when we hand over our car keys for the very last time.
I probably won’t even be alive by the time our driving infrastructures have fully conformed to the floaty chair future. But you might be. And if you care about how humans fit into an increasingly machine-controlled world, you’ll pay close attention to every decision that subjugates man to machine. Even two weeks ago, I would have laughed at Elon Musk’s OpenAI initiative. But, today, following NHTSA’s response to Google, I’m not so sure.
Jon has been covering all manner of consumer hardware since 1995. He brought the Bitchin'fast!3D2000 to market in 1999, and has ran MaximumPC, Mac|Life, Mobile, Greenbot and Macworld, among other consumer tech magazines and websites.