The sinister self-driving car

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Image of data-gathering by self-driving car on highway. (KitGuru)

The Atlantic has a very interesting article, “How Self-Driving Cars Will Threaten Privacy,” by Adrienne LaFrance. It actually ran a couple of years ago, and looks forward to the convenience of life with a self-driving car. The car will listen to your conversations and take your unwitting advice by, say, putting on your grocery list a type of beer you praised on the phone to a friend, or, without having to be told, adding a coffee stop on your way to work. Nice!

But there’s a darker side to all this, too. Let’s rewind and take a closer look at your commute for a minute.

There we were. The car picked us up. We wanted coffee. It suggested Peet’s. But if we’d stopped to look at the map on the screen when this happened, we might have noticed that Peet’s wasn’t actually the most efficient place to stop, nor was it on your list of preferred coffee shops, which the car’s machine-learning algorithm developed over time. Peet’s was, instead, a sponsored destination—not unlike a sponsored search result on Google. The car went ever-so-slightly out of the way to take you there.

The analysis by LaFrance goes into chilling detail about how the desire for profit might cause your car to edit your life.

Still, a lot of people will decide to put up with self-driving surveillance of this sort. We already put up with it online, allowing Google or other busybody behemoths to place ads for things they know we want in the articles we read on our laptops. And who knows what else. Better living through algorithms!

However many billions or trillions that Google, GM, and other corporations (including Uncle Sam) plow into self-driving cars, I don’t think they are in the cards. Our brains function faster and better behind the wheel using intuition developed over many thousands of years than any computer. Maybe computers can do a lot more calculations at once, and maybe they don’t drink and drive, but they can also be relied on to break down in little ways that don’t matter so much on our desktops but might matter a lot more hurtling down the highway at 65 miles per hour. The amazing thing is not how many accidents we have today but how few. Thank your brain.

So I think that after a while, after more serious testing ramps up and demonstrates the beauty of our natural onboard computers, we will shrug our shoulders and admit … no can do. Hopefully, we’ll have some useful things that are spun off by the research, like Tang was spun off by the space program.

But if it does happen – and this is one of many good reasons for it not to happen – what I worry about most is if, one day when self-driving cars are installed, I write a piece describing how we still have not been able to work out the 3D Rubik’s Cube of changes that will be required to reconcile the massive dislocations in technological, commercial, infrastructural, social, civic, economic and other systems that emerge over time because of the self-driving car. Suppose someone at Google decides to get the Ministry of Truth to issue a warrant for my arrest. All they have to do is plug a new itinerary into my car’s computer and instead of driving me to Peet’s, my car (or some corporate fleet’s car) will drive me straight to jail.

Nah. This cannot be allowed to happen.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to The sinister self-driving car

  1. The problem with cars 100 years ago wasn’t that they had motors. It was that they were private. They isolated people in the public realm. The problem with autonomous vehicles won’t be when they are public, but when they are private. It wasn’t the car that ruined urbanism, it was the _private_ car.

    Another issue, though, is that private information is a problem too: both people isolated on their phones and private information on where each person goes.

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    • Maybe so, but I would place the blame not on the private car itself but on the supine attitude of government at all levels to the needs of the car over the needs of pedestrians and of the essentially pedestrian character that a city should maintain, and that includes architecture that caters to the pedestrians’ desire for beauty and animation in the streetscape.

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  2. Daniel Morales says:

    Excellent points David. I would add that walking is now widely recognized as the best way to maintain our health and well-being, to say nothing about this system’s hack ability from bad actors. Where I do see this technology being viable is in a trolley like transportation system.

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    • I would counter, Dan, that changing my itinerary to drive me to jail is indeed the hacking of my car computer bad actors, even if they are the government. If we can limit self-driving vehicles to trolleys and the like, we will be fortunate.

      By the way, when I lived on Benefit Street in 1985-1999 I walked to the Journal and back every day. When I moved downtown I walked from my apartment to work and back every day, but it was a walk of two minutes rather than 20 minutes. Not long after, I nearly had a heart attack (I recognized symptoms and got away with a stent). I am not sure how to parse the seemingly conflicting benefits of walking and living downtown!

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