Talk of a future filled with driverless trucks, autonomous cars and remotely controlled public transit scares me.
And it isn’t just the possibility of crashing in – or into – one of these self-driving contraptions that frightens me. What really bothers me is the mindset that says technology will always outperform humans, and the lack of pushback from media and government on this way of thinking.
We hear news about driverless vehicle technology almost daily. Tesla and Google are leading the way by creating cars featuring autonomous driving capabilities that would allow the driver to nod off, read a book or check their email while behind the wheel. Some driverless and autonomous cars are already on our roads, and mass-production vehicles will completely drive themselves within a few years.
The latest development comes from Sacramento, California, where government is proposing driverless public transit shuttles that can hold up to 12 people and travel between 8 and 25 mph on a pre-programmed, fixed route around the city. Each vehicle would cost about $200,000 and run on a battery that can last up to 10 hours.
The idea of computer-chauffeured cars sounds futuristic, even Jetsonian. But on second glance it’s not that big a deal. When I was growing up, flying cars were the future. No one talked about driverless cars. Have we given up on flying cars? Are today’s drivers more interested in sleeping and playing on their phones than taking off into a new dimension? Are the self-driving vehicle manufacturers just giving Americans what they want – more time to play Angry Birds?
While many are looking forward to letting a computer drive their car, many others fear a driverless future. According to a AAA survey conducted in March, “three‐quarters of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a self‐driving vehicle, while 19 percent would trust the vehicle and 4 percent are unsure.” The same survey found that 54 percent “would feel less safe sharing the road with self‐driving cars while they drive a regular car.”
The survey results aren’t surprising; I don’t know anyone who trusts technology enough to put their lives in its hands. What is surprising is that we rarely hear this kind of skepticism in news reports. We only hear that a self-driving future is a certainty. Is the media that enamored of Tesla founder Elon Musk that they forget to ask about the potential downsides to his technology aims?
While the media praise each new driverless technology achievement and our government offers little pushback or guarantee for driver safety as the manufacturing sector careens headlong into this dangerous future, all I can think of is the poor guy in Florida who sat watching a Harry Potter movie as his Tesla Model S, equipped with Autopilot software, failed to detect a truck crossing the highway ahead. The car drove itself under the 18-wheeler’s trailer, killing the man.
Although U.S. traffic safety regulators blamed the driver and not the software after investigating the 2016 crash, the story instantly made me fearful of anything driverless.
There are other aspects to this issue besides safety. Many people simply like driving. It’s a form of freedom. They want to be in control of their car. They want to enjoy the curves of a country road. Will they soon be unable to buy a car they can pilot manually? Will the government eventually outlaw human drivers?
Also, I don’t think I can give up steering and braking control to a computer. I already get freaked out when I’m a passenger in a vehicle. I don’t even like automatic transmissions or ABS brakes. I like being one with my vehicle. Will control freaks like me ever accept a computerized Jeeves?
And driverless technology is just plain boring. There’s no wow factor to it. I thought the future of motoring was going to be awesome. I thought we’d take off in our car like a Harrier jumpjet and fly to work. Guess not. Instead, they’re giving us cars that don’t need us. Ho hum.
The underlying trend that has me most worried, though, is the complete trust some have of computers to take over every aspect of our lives. Don’t they realize electronics fail? It’s one thing to trust driverless technology to navigate a well-lined, pancake flat highway; it’s another to trust the software to navigate a twisting, turning, potholed, snow-covered, limb-shrouded, poorly lined back road in rural Maine.
We need skilled humans at the helm when driving conditions turn dangerous. I trust a person to see me and my truck crossing the road much more than a circuit board built by Elon Musk.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.