In a shocking new development, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month issued a letter to tech giant Google confirming it will legally recognize Google's computer systems as a "driver" for a test fleet of autonomous cars. You read that correctly. A computer system is now federally accepted as a driver of a motor vehicle. Now before you call in Sarah Connor and try to deactivate Skynet and keep the machines from taking over, just read on. Take a deep breath, and count to 10. We'll get through this, but we need everyone on the same page.
While NHTSA trumps my say-so, I'm going to issue my official ruling right here: The self-driving car needs to be scrapped.
Photo Credit: Google
Think about it.
A touchscreen kiosk rings up our groceries. Toll collectors have been replaced by transponders. Our mechanics plug a car into a computer so the car can tell the mechanic what's wrong with it. Auto insurance companies spy on us with sketchy data loggers and we eat it up. Advances in technology in the sake of saving money, or convenience, or efficiency.
Robots are also doing more important things, too...like surgery. Now the powers that be want us to sit down, shut up and hold on while they take us for a ride?
No way. Here's why.
1. Computers Suck.
As I type this, I'm pushing the keys on an old laptop that didn't want to boot up yesterday. It also didn't save the previous draft of this post because its a piece of junk. I challenge you to go one day without a computer freeze-up, smartphone hiccup, or cable box glitch. Now we're going to take the same technology and apply it to a four-wheeled capsule and drive at 65 mph? I'll take my chances with people any day. I barely trust my computer to process words.
|A self-driving car roams the streets in 2012.|
Photo Credit: Sam Churchill / Flickr
2. They Haven't Perfected This Stuff.
Hey want to see something cool? Here's one of those new-fangled cars that stop themselves.
Well, that's just Volvo. Maybe Tesla has worked all the bugs out of their cars. They're so smart, they offer automatic firmware updates in their Model S sedans, complete with new features like "Autopilot".
Let's see how that works.
Well, that doesn't seem to work so good. I guess the engineers have some homework. We certainly wouldn't want them to crash in the real world. That would be terrible, right? Google's new self-driving car suffered a setback last month when it decided to pull out in front of a bus in Mountain View, California. Like a 16 year-old with Mom's car, it wasn't the first accident that Google cars have been involved in. Supporters will point out that Google's previous crashes were not their fault, but he fault of other motorists...in each instance. Must be nice to have a near-perfect driving record. I don't buy it, but it must be nice.
3. The Tech Industry Asks, And We Shall Receive Whatever They Want To Give Us.
According to its own documents, Google lobbied the federal government for legislation favorable to its new self-driving cars. Legislation like the FAST Act, or Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act helps create the perfect scenario for autonomous vehicles to appear as mainstream items. Buried amongst the highway infrastructure improvements, one provision of the law includes a missive to
"accelerate the deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, autonomous vehicles, and other technologies."
Great. It helps when the country's Chief Technology Officer is a former Google VP. Oh, and Google donated a hefty sum to the Obama campaigns over the last 10 years. So I guess you could say that Google homemade taste was baked right in.
Over the next two years, 10 universities will conduct research for an upcoming GAO report on the future of autonomous cars. It is likely that the next steps will include a plan to move ahead with major infrastructure improvements to carry out the implementation of autonomous vehicles. My hunch is it will become a done deal in a short amount of time. Its not just the U.S. that's playing around with this stuff. The U.K. will also soon become one big proving ground. Sounds promising. By promising I mean terrifying.
|"We hope you've enjoyed the ride."|
Photo: Tri-Star Pictures
4. High-Tech Cars Restrict Independent Mobility.Say you need to go somewhere in the future world of driverless cars. My guess is that you'll need around $50K to afford one of your own. Too poor? Well just take a taxi. Or an Uber. Or Lyft. Whatever they're going to be called. You need an app on your smartphone. Boom, there's another $1000 expense for the phone and $200 per month for the data plan. Don't have enough money for that? Well I guess you'll just have to keep working at your $8.50 an hour job more often. But you'll need a car to get there.
Repeat the cycle above.
America is increasingly becoming a nation of wide disparity between those who have it...and those who don't. Broadband internet and widespread adoption of the smartphone has allowed some of us to leap forward, while others in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, and those with disabilities are left in yesterday's dust. Forcing an entirely new method of mobility upon us will undoubtedly create bigger challenges to our basic privilege of transportation. Its chilling to think about.
Then there's the matter of young motorists. Gone are the days of the $500 beater for the young driver. Kids aren't going to be able to get a set of wheels themselves because the cost will sky high. How will tomorrow's gearheads learn how to turn a wrench? What will be their teaching tool for maintenance?
Ah, who cares. We're all going to be plant food anyway.
A friend of ours remarked that the giant warehouses that've sprouted up across the country in recent years all seem to be within shouting distance of the interstate. Not just near the interstate, but feet from it. You've seen them. Their location will eventually make it easier for the driverless semis of tomorrow to pickup and dropoff our goods. Soon, the 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers will be out of a job. I give it 10-15 years at the most.
5. Autonomous Cars are Only the Beginning.
In Daimler's self-driving semi, we have a machine that never needs a federally-mandated break. It never needs to rest or take a vacation with its kids. It doesn't have to pass a drug test and it certainly won't ask for a raise. We essentially have the Cyberdine Systems Model 101 of the tractor trailer world. How would you feel about a few chips and battery packs hauling around 50,000 tons at 70 mph? My guess is most people wouldn't care. If you haven't cared about the elimination of other industry jobs by automation, why care about truck drivers?
You should care, your job could be next. Did you ever think doctors would be replaced by robots in your lifetime? If they're expendable, so are you.
Stay safe, and keep the computers where they belong...at work. Drive what you want, when you want, where you want. Don't let the robots take over just yet.