The Autonomous Car

January 31st, 2012

Tom Vanderbilt on the autonomous car:

Levandowski has a point. I was briefly nervous when Urmson first took his hands off the wheel and a synthy woman’s voice announced coolly, “Autodrive.” But after a few minutes, the idea of a computer-driven car seemed much less terrifying than the panorama of indecision, BlackBerry-fumbling, rule-flouting, and other vagaries of the humans around us—including the weaving driver who struggles to film us as he passes.

We are undoubtedly moving toward cars that drive themselves without any human input. Autonomous cars sort of symbolize new technology that, on the one hand, excites me because of the possibilities, the efficiency gains, the open parking spaces, the safety, the sheer excitement of creating a car which can drive itself—but it also worries me, because I wonder how that changes society and who we are.

A society where most everyone uses autonomous cars is also a society where being able to drive a car is a lot like being able to ride a horse—a quaint, cute skill to have. It’s a society where we may no longer enjoy driving down highway one through Big Sur, or along an empty desert highway at night, because most people may not even own a car, and if they do, they certainly aren’t driving it themselves. They’re passengers, distracted by other things like iPhones or iPads or Kindles or whatever else they’re playing with, because taking a car is now just free time.

I suppose it’s a bit odd to find pleasure in driving a few thousand pound piece of gasoline-burning metal, itself operated by computers, along a mountain or desert road and deriving some kind of relaxation or even meditation in it. Of course, the car itself was a huge technological change which completely upset the norms which came before it and, I’m sure, led to similar fears about what that change meant. And of course, as things change, we’ll adapt, and find new ways to enjoy ourselves.

Yet there’s also something utterly serene about driving down an empty desert road at night, perfectly awake and aware. It’s one of the few things left in our lives where we aren’t constantly bombarded by text messages, alerts, status updates, the urge to see what’s going on in the world, and where, because we aren’t bombarded by it and we must be focused on operating the car, we are actually left alone to think. That is freeing, and that is worth protecting. And so while change might be a natural part of life, it’s also true that we should try to protect that. Not protect driving in particular, but make time for those kinds of moments, and create ways for them to exist, even when we could be checking Twitter while our cars drive themselves.