During the holy grail days of automobiles around 1900, well before self-driving cars, Willie K. Vanderbilt II vroomed around New England in his expensive, souped-up car. Back then, all autos were expensive and souped-up. This rich kid even got a speeding ticket for his three-hour trip from Newport, RI, to Boston.
Then along came Henry Affordable Ford’s Models “A” through “Z.” This Great Popularization of the car expanded liberty and control for citizens, followed by traffic accidents and insurance policies. Face it, automobiles were a huge unapproved social experiment, but spectacularly overcome by excellent U.S. entrepreneurs.
Here come self-driving cars, automated vehicles, or “AV” for short. Since vehicle-related deaths here now reach something like 35,000 per year, ten bucks says AVs would cut that by at least 90% after the AV Great Popularization.
Like all innovations, AVs aren’t perfect. Job loss tops that list. Then we should also rightfully worry about “hacking” into self-driving computers, the internet connections between high-speed car clusters, and the NSA. Still, the explosion in new people able to get around makes this newer social experiment very well worth it. Even with likely traffic increasing five-fold, traffic flow will be far easier than what we have now by getting rid of the so-called “human impulse gap” causing most of the jams and delays. My ten-dollar bet about fewer traffic deaths spreads to the even far larger number of non-death injuries not suffered. Clearly, emergency room admissions and auto insurance premiums will take a dive. Poor insurance salespeople!
The smart predictions bet on new AV occupations-mechanical, electrical, electronic-which will surely mushroom with AV growth. These skills will pay well. Happily, we will also need fewer parking lots.
That cultural shift a century ago: freedom, speed, power, control, meant much more liberty to go where, when, and if you just wanted to “go.” This shift continues with AVs, because many, many more can “just go.”
Nevertheless, the largest not-so-good social effect will be the job loss. How to bring all this change about? Cities and suburbs will be remade. It’s been said that this next upcoming “unapproved social experiment” doesn’t have “average public consent.” Ten more bucks says the average public consent will quickly fall in love with AVs.
Up from a century ago, we have evolved many more ways to meddle with innovations like AV development. Our public sector can threaten to “help out” with federal incentives, taxation, and great job training. Safety experts will want to “shepherd a safe and efficient deployment,” and somehow chew gum at the same time. A few fatherly geniuses are already shaking their fingers at AVs for encouraging “slothification.” That is, people finding it easier to jump into an automated ride than walking short distances. If I want to automate ma’ ride, then that’s my own dadgum bid’ness. Period.
Then there’s the “Trolley Problem” already circling the academic pipeline again to annoy AV design and liability. Briefly, the tedious old Trolley Problem asks you, the trolley-track switch person to decide whether you’d allow a runaway trolley car to run over five people tied to the track ahead, or rather throw the switch to send the trolley into only one person on that other track. See, this simulates a self-driving car auto-deciding where to crash. Pardon me while I fall over barfing.
Then there’s the Precautionary Principle, less popular in the U.S., which basically says that we should move slowly on technological changes (AVs) to be sure something bad doesn’t happen later. In English, means doing very little about anything. Mountains of well-meaning shepherds usually choke innovation badly. Think about the turtle-like progress on cancer treatment drugs, for example. Let’s let others bake in their own Trolley Problems, slothification worries, and precautionary principles while we innovate! More risk taking, more discovery.
Granted, some of the excitements of very early cars have lessened. One cheeky writer suggests that today we just kind of drive along, and aim a little with the steering wheel. So, AVs shouldn’t seem much different, really.
No! Not really! The car is a stand-in for that rebellious kind of American independence. The self-driving car will continue proving that for far more people. Besides, though, we still maybe have room for the occasional choice to run the length of Montana in that used red MGA, refitted with one of those 1960s Volvo engines. Maybe…