On April 4th, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law allowing autonomous cars to be tested on public roads without a licensed driver present. Recently, in Detroit, Google arranged a deal with Fiat Chrysler to install their self-driving technology in a new fleet of hybrid minivans. Many predict that by the year 2050, almost all cars will be self-driving, and this is more a safe prediction than an ambitious one—it will likely happen sooner.
Autonomous cars are proven to be safer, more efficient, and overall less costly to society with regards to insurance premiums, the importing of fossil fuels, and property damage resulting from accidents. Brad Templeton, a spokesperson for Google, has laid out a utopian vision of the future wherein all regular automobiles have been phased out, and there is a continuous flow of cars circling through cities, ready to offer rides to anybody, like a taxi service minus the Gregory Isaacs playing.
The traffic would abide by different traffic laws based on inter-vehicle communication: at an intersection, for example, cars would yield to the car that got there first—you know, the way people are supposed to yield to one another. Where a car obediently follows the rules, a person thinks either, “This guy is an asshole and he’s in the way; I need to cut ahead of him so I can get where I’m going faster,” or “This pickup truck with a pair of testicles dangling on the trailer hitch is going to run this stop sign and bulldoze right over me if I pull out into this intersection; I better just let him go first.” And this is where I start to become skeptical of the self-driving utopian vision: without some serious maturation and self-control on our part, replacing drivers with autonomous cars will not remove our desire to drive. The technological problems of creating autonomous cars will inevitably be solved; it’s our own problems we have to deal with.
While only now a looming consumer reality, self-driving cars have been in our consciousness for a long time. In 2000, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle (Ha!) The Sixth Day came out.
It is a sci-fi thriller wherein Tony Goldwyn, aka the voice of Tarzan in the animated Disney film Tarzan, plays the sort of ruthless, chillingly pragmatic businessman we always imagine will someday run the U.S. The movie begins with a caption that boldly declares the film takes place “SOONER THAN YOU THINK.”
There is an elaborate conspiracy involving cloning that, despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to find any emotional or logistical motive behind. The film was the debut screenplay of husband-and-wife writing duo Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, who would go on to make every film you saw at a conspicuously under-attended birthday party: National Treasure, The Shaggy Dog, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and G-Force. In its portrayal of the future, the film includes cloned animals, hologram advertisements, automated defense attorneys, calibrated refrigerators that order food for you and, most importantly, self-driving cars. Aside from the self-driving technology in the film being provided by OnStar, which these days is basically an emergency button that no longer works on the rearview mirror of every 2001 Buick, the film’s portrayal of self-driving technology is pretty accurate. It resembles recent efforts by Volvo to create an autopilot system that can be turned on or off at the driver’s leisure.
Despite the self-driving technology, though, there are two different car chases in the film. In one of the car chases, Schwarzenegger pumps his fist after successfully running over one of the henchmen lying on the road. Wouldn’t we, in the future, have some sort of emergency override system that doesn’t allow people to deliberately kill each other with cars? Sure, it was just an anonymous henchman working for the bad guy, but the car doesn’t know that—it’s been programmed by it’s OnStar overlord to protect the people in- and outside the car from themselves. And here I think lies the main resistance to autonomous car technology: it doesn’t allow for the irrational decision to be made. The promulgators of autonomous car technology assume that the purpose of driving is only to get from one destination to the next, but driving is its own form of socializing, of leisure, and of self-effacement. Could you program a self-driving car to take the most scenic route? Can a car understand if your destination is nowhere in particular? Or during the interregnum years, when we have drivers and self-driving cars side by side, can a car be programmed to speed through a yellow light, or inch out into the road to make a last-second left turn?
As the gulf between the present and the future we’ve fascinated for so long shrinks, it is not our cars that are going to be difficult to reprogram, but ourselves. Gone will be the days where getting a car is a rite-of-passage into adulthood, where people bond over the minutiae of driving etiquette. The horrible, senseless deaths that happen because of split-second inattentiveness, and the morbid accidents other drivers perversely slow down to look at—those will be gone too. The question is not when autonomous cars will be ready, but whether we will be grown up enough to relinquish our right to the irrational choice when they arrive.
Photo credit: blu-ray.com