Driving from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta this Thanksgiving weekend, I had the opportunity to read Burkhard Bilger’s great New Yorker article on the development of self-driving cars. It’s a long, involved story melding technical accomplishments with personal storytelling, and throws in a healthy dash of historical context. I was able to take the time to work through the full thing because I was in the back seat, freed from driving responsibilities by my absence from the rental car agreement my parents had signed up in York, PA. From time to time I booted up my laptop, and started surfing the web using a Verizon wireless hotspot, at full 4G LTE speeds. My sister used this same arrangement to watch movies streaming from Netflix, one more way to pass the tedium. We are just old enough (mid-twenties) to still be able to occasionally gasp at the seeming absurdity of streaming high quality video and maintaining instantaneous communication with the wider world while hurtling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. The road trip entertainment of our childhood was strictly restricted to the print and personal variety.
We now have ever more activities to occupy our time, and a worldwide connection that can follow us nearly anywhere we go. We don’t need to lose connection when we take off or land in a plane. Why shouldn’t the driver be able to get in on the fun?
From the consumer’s point of view, this is the great appeal of self-driving vehicles: liberation from the monotony of hurtling down empty expanses of highway, or inching along in the gridlock of the commute. Bilger cites an earlier advertisement for the long prophesied self-driving cars as depicting a family turned toward the each other, playing checkers as they move. But as Bilger describes Google’s motivations in pouring its resources into developing this technology, the men of Mountain View have more on their mind than consumer convenience. Relief from tedium through automation was the promise of the last century, the pitch that sold a thousand washing machines.
Instead, Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, wants nothing more than to (wait for it) “fundamentally change the world with this.” He looks out on the expanse of America’s urban landscape and sees wide swaths of wasted land as cars are used for a couple hours a day at most, then occupy prime real estate unproductively the rest of the day. His self-driving cars can become a fleet, providing personal car service to commuters at a far higher efficiency than today’s taxies, yet more flexible than metro, bus, or light-rail systems. As Brin said, “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model … We are just on such a different planet.” At least so far, though, that different planet doesn’t let free the driver from his responsibility behind the wheel. Attentive human beings are required to be at the ready in case the car needs to hand off responsibility, having become confused. Even assuming as we surely should that Google makes enormous strides in ironing out what few errors remain, it already takes measurable seconds for a human in the driver’s seat to reorient to the situation after being distracted. Imagine if that person first had to be spun around from their checkers match with the kids.
There’s a conflict between the competing motivations for these automated cars. From the producers, cars are sold as a safety feature, a next step on a path well-trod by power steering, airbags, antilock brakes, and traction control. For Sergey Brin, this appears to be one more step in Google’s self-professed mission to organize and optimize access to the world’s information. The information in this case being, well, our bodies in transit.
To work, though, they’ll have to sell them to us. And we just want to stop paying attention behind the wheel. It is hard to imagine that any but the already most painstakingly conscientious drivers will stand at the ready to spring into action. Instead, we’ll read the newspaper, do our makeup, eat our breakfast (all of which, it must be said, many already do behind the wheel). Then we’ll take a nap, turn around, and engage in other entertainments. We’ll change our clothes on the go. And when the little light flashes and buzzer buzzes, indicating that our imminent intervention is required, we’ll groggily come to, and wonder what all this fuss is about.