One Vision Of A Driverless Car Future: Eliminating Private Car Ownership

Most analysis of a driverless car future concentrates on the gains in safety: ‘robotic’ cars will adhere more closely to speed limits and other traffic rules and over a period of time, by eliminating human error and idiosyncrasies, produce a safer environment on our roads. This might be seen as an architectural modification of human driving behavior to produce safer driving outcomes–rather than making unsafe driving illegal, more expensive, or socially unacceptable, just don’t let humans drive.

But there are other problems–environmental degradation and traffic–that could be addressed by mature driverless car technologies. The key to their solution lies in moving away from private car ownership.

To see this, consider that at any given time, we have too many cars on the roads. Some are being driven, yet others are parked. If you own a car, you drive it from point to point, and park it when you are done using it. Eight hours later–at the end of an average work-day–you leave your office and drive home, park it again, and then use it in the morning. Through the night, your car sits idle again, taking up space. If only someone else could use your car while you didn’t need it. They wouldn’t need to buy a separate car for themselves and add to the congestion on the highways. And in parking lots.

Why not simply replace privately owned, human-driven cars with a gigantic fleet of robotic taxis? When you need a car, you call for one. When you are done using it, you release it back into the pool. You don’t park it; it simply goes back to answering its next call.  Need to go to work in the morning? Call a car. Run an errand with heavy lifting? Call a car. And so on. Cars shared in this fashion could thus eliminate the gigantic redundancy in car ownership that leads to choked highways, mounting smog and pollution, endless, futile construction of parking towers, and elaboration congestion pricing schemes. (The key phrase here is, of course, ‘mature driver-less car technologies.’ If you need a car for an elaborate road-trip through the American West, perhaps you could place a longer, more expensive hold on it, so that it doesn’t drive off while you are taking a quick photo or two of a canyon.)

Such a future entails that there will be no more personal, ineffable, fetishized relationships with cars. They will not be your babies to be cared and loved for. Their upholstery will not remind you of days gone by. Your children will not feel sentimental about the clunker that was a part of their growing up. And so on. I suspect these sorts of attachments to the car will be very easily forgotten once we have reckoned with the sheer pleasure of not having to deal with driving tests–and the terrors of teaching our children how to drive, the DMV, buying car insurance, looking for parking, and best of all, other drivers.

I, for one, welcome our robotic overlords in this domain.

Handing Over The Keys To The Driverless Car

Early conceptions of a driverless car world spoke of catastrophe: the modern versions of the headless horseman would run amok, driving over toddlers and grandmothers with gay abandon, sending the already stratospheric death toll from automobile accidents into ever more rarefied zones, and sending us all cowering back into our homes, afraid to venture out into a shooting gallery of four-wheeled robotic serial killers. How would the inert, unfeeling, sightless, coldly calculating programs  that ran these machines ever show the skill and judgment of human drivers, the kind that enables them, on a daily basis, to decline to run over a supermarket shopper and decide to take the right exit off the interstate?

Such fond preference for the human over the machinic–on the roads–was always infected with some pretension, some make-believe, some old-fashioned fallacious comparison of the best of the human with the worst of the machine. Human drivers show very little affection for other human drivers; they kill them by the scores every day (thirty thousand fatalities or so in a year); they often do not bother to interact with them sober (over a third of all car accidents involved a drunken driver); they rage and rant at their driving colleagues (the formula for ‘instant asshole’ used to be ‘just add alcohol’ but it could very well be ‘place behind a wheel’ too); they second-guess their intelligence, their parentage on every occasion. When they can be bothered to pay attention to them, often finding their smartphones more interesting as they drive. If you had to make an educated guess who a human driver’s least favorite person in the world was, you could do worse than venture it was someone they had encountered on a highway once. We like our own driving; we disdain that of others. It’s a Hobbesian state of nature out there on the highway.

Unsurprisingly, it seems the biggest problem the driverless car will face is human driving. The one-eyed might be king in the land of the blind, but he is also susceptible to having his eyes put out. The driverless car might follow traffic rules and driving best practices rigorously but such acquiescence’s value is diminished in a world which otherwise pays only sporadic heed to them. Human drivers incorporate defensive and offensive maneuvers into their driving; they presume less than perfect knowledge of the rules of the road on the part of those they interact with; their driving habits bear the impress of long interactions with other, similarly inclined human drivers. A driverless car, one bearing rather more fidelity to the idealized conception of a safe road user, has at best, an uneasy coexistence in a world dominated by such driving practices.

The sneaking suspicion that automation works best when human roles are minimized is upon us again: perhaps driverless cars will only be able to show off their best and deliver on their incipient promise when we hand over the wheels–and keys–to them. Perhaps the machine only sits comfortably in our world when we have made adequate room for it. And displaced ourselves in the process.