Sue Halpern writes insightfully about technology for the New York Review of Books. Below are a few excerpts from an essay/review of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, MIT Press, 312 pp., $29.95.
The article is ‘locked’ – for subscribers only. The quotes below are, I hope, within the realm of “fair use.”
For generations of Americans especially, and young Americans even more, driving and the open road promised a kind of freedom: the ability to light out for the territory, even if the territory was only the mall one town over. Autonomous vehicles also come with the promise of freedom, the freedom of getting places without having to pay attention to the open (or, more likely, clogged) road, and with it, the freedom to sleep, work, read e-mail, text, play, have sex, drink a beer, watch a movie, or do nothing at all. In the words of the Morgan Stanley analysts, whose enthusiasm is matched by advocates in Silicon Valley and cheerleaders in Detroit, driverless vehicles will deliver us to a “utopian society.”
That utopia looks something like this: fleets of autonomous vehicles—call them taxi bots—owned by companies like Uber and Google, able to be deployed on demand, that will eliminate, for the most part, the need for private car ownership. (Currently, most privately owned cars sit idle for most of the day, simply taking up space and depreciating in value.) Fewer privately owned vehicles will result in fewer cars on the road overall. With fewer cars will come fewer traffic jams and fewer accidents. Fewer accidents will enable cars to be made from lighter materials, saving on fuel. They will be smaller, too, since cars will no longer need to be armored against one another.
With less private car ownership, individuals will be freed of car payments, fuel and maintenance costs, and insurance premiums. Riders will have more disposable income and less debt. The built environment will improve as well, as road signs are eliminated—smart cars always know where they are and where they are going—and parking spaces, having become obsolete, are converted into green spaces. And if this weren’t utopian enough, the Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that switching to full vehicle autonomy will save the United States economy alone $1.3 trillion a year.
She goes on to describe the technical challenges, such as, what will a car’s “perception” be and how it will be programmed to deal with various life and death situations? She asks: “Will members of car-sharing services have to waive their right to sue if a fleet car gets in an accident? And how will blame be assessed? Was the accident the fault of software that didn’t accurately read the road, or the municipality that didn’t maintain the road? Tort law is likely to be as challenged by the advent of self-driving cars as the automobile industry itself.”
Looking more broadly at the societal issues, she notes: “It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities.” And, “lawmakers in this country are now using the autonomous vehicle future laid out by companies like Uber and Google to block investment in mass transit.”
What of all the people who will end up on the dole – all the drivers of trucks and taxis, supporting themselves and their families, clawing their way toward a decent standard of living?
Getting into the realm of the creepy, she imagines a scenario of “Google offering rides for free as long as passengers are willing to “share” the details of where they are going, what they are buying, who they are with, and which products their eyes are drawn to on the ubiquitous (but targeted!) ads that are playing in the car’s cabin.”
I was pondering all this as I watched a UPS driver deliver a package to the house next door and imagined a driverless delivery vehicle doing this job. There was nowhere to park on the block, but he managed to double-park on the corner, make his way back to the house, negotiate its latched front gate and pacify the dog, climb the stairs and chat with the customer. Will neighbourhoods have to be redesigned to accommodate robots, or will a human ride along, maybe watching videos or updating his Facebook page, in order to make the delivery itself? There’s a job for you!
Will there ever be a time where a techno-revolution such as this will be banned for not being in the public good?