Driverless cars are fast becoming the next big thing, with timelines for their arrival collapsing at breakneck speed. They remind me of the Minions.
The website grist.org has an article by Katie Herzog called “No One Wants Driverless Cars Except for People Who Make Driverless Cars.” She reports on several polls suggesting that driverless cars are somewhat less popular than the wave they are riding.
People seem to be very impressed by the idea of a computer taking over from the human driver. Color me underwelmed. People forget that no manmade computer can match the intuitive driving intelligence of the human brain (actually a manmade computer, I suppose, but never mind).
To switch on the ignition and move out into traffic is to switch the brain into a gear that may perhaps use more subconscious survival techniques than are involved in any other human activity. For one thing, while driving a man or woman are in as much danger as they are likely ever to be in normal human life. The way we all make driving decisions without thinking about it is the brain at its best. A road full of cars operates with a degree of efficiency that no computer could match. The amazing thing about driving is not how many accidents there are but how few there are.
But take away that cognitive moment-by-moment creativity that is the act of driving a car and replace it with a computer – one that figures everything out in a split second based on algorithms triggered by sensors placed in strategic locations throughout the automobile. Factor in, as I suppose you must, that the car’s computer is programmed to obey all driving laws and regulations. Then quadruple the number of cars on the road because everyone will let their cars go do their errands for them. Then factor out the money spent on road maintenance now that fewer actual people will be driving, and the pressure on government to keep roads shipshape will decline.
With all that, imagine how fast the traffic will go. It will not speed up. It will slow down, slow down dramatically. Those who still do their own driving will be very frustrated by road sloth, the constant and constantly moving traffic jam. Some drivers might juke in and out of traffic, making life harder for the poor automated car’s computer, which will have to keep an eye out for these reprobates – and the pressure for laws to ban driving will increase.
Will the computers in cars be programmed to drive over to the side of the road if a deep pothole momentarily jolts their program out of alignment? What if one self-driving car is hit by another? Will they be programmed to exchange insurance data? I do not deny being frightened by the news that Google’s developers are contemplating a coat of glue so that pedestrians hit by driverless cars will stick to the fender rather than falling onto the road to be “bloop-blooped” by the guilty driverless car and those that follow it.
As an urbanist, I worry that injecting cities with thousands and even millions of driverless cars will bring such a wave of unintended consequences that prudence argues against it.
But no, I am not afraid of driverless cars. I’m sure that good sense will prevail before they hit the road. On the other hand, that good sense did not prevail when modern architecture – with its equally obvious monumental flaws – hit the road and took control more than half a century ago. Okay, I am scared.
After quoting sources pro and con, Katie Herzog ends her Grist piece with this home truth: “Besides, there’s already a vehicle out there that is cheap, green, and also lets you snooze through your morning commute: It’s called the city bus.”