Are autonomous cars right for everyone?
For anyone who loves to drive, the idea of self-driving cars may be uncomfortable at best, and perhaps loathsome at worst. I am curious, but not sure how autonomous vehicles might fit into my world as someone who generally insists on driving everywhere because I like to be in control of my own wheels.
At the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin this year, Jalopnik – a news and opinion website about cars, the automotive industry, racing and motorcycles – hosted a panel discussion on the topic. Knowing Jalopnik, I guessed that it would be a lively, blunt, and honest discussion, and it didn’t disappoint.
The panel included: Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik Associate Editor (and host of “Jason Drives”), Alissa Walker, Gizmodo Urbanism Editor; Alex Roy, The Drive Editor-at-Large; Parker Kligerman, NASCAR driver and NBC Sports Analyst; and Gabe Klein, Transportation & Technology Expert. Each had his or her own take on what autonomous cars would do to the automotive industry and to drivers in general.
In February, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that Google’s self-driving vehicles could be considered a driver, under federal law. They will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google‘s described motor vehicle design as referring to the self-driving system, and not to any of the vehicle occupants.
Google wants to build self-driving vehicles without the typical controls we are used to seeing in our cars. However, some regulations still require cars have certain safety equipment for human intervention, such as foot-operated brake pedals. Naturally, people would try to take over, and that is Google’s big concern. Potentially, human mutiny over the computer system could make self-driving cars more dangerous overall.
“I’m pro-choice in the world of driving! Cars that take over is an emasculating idea,” said Alex Roy, at the start of the discussion. “The day autonomous cars are mandated, I’m going to hack a Tesla and fly across the country in 22 hours.” I’d recommend a trailer with a battery charger, too.
Alissa Walker, who wrote “6 steps to living a car-free life”, disagrees and believes in the benefits of an urban environment stocked primarily with self-driving vehicles.
“All of the cars on the road are killing us, with both emissions and accidents,” she said.
Gabe Klein, who worked for Zipcar and the food truck operator On The Fly before heading the departments of transportation in both Washington DC and Chicago, is also pro-autonomous vehicle.
“Now that I’m a dad, I don’t want people driving with the potential to hit kids in their cars,” said Gabe. ““We need to get the people who shouldn’t be driving off the roads.”
But he also sees the pitfalls we could fall into if everyone has a self-driving car of their own, because that doesn’t improve efficiency and free up space in the cities. He believes we can justify driving in rural America, but not in urban America, because he sees it as too expensive and bad for our environment.
Is car ownership dead?
“Ownership is dead,” Klein said [and I gasped]. “It’s all about shared mobility. If everyone has an autonomous car, we have failed. We can get rid of 90% of the cars in the city.”
He also discussed at length the impact of the millennial generation on the automotive industry and their traveling preferences. Klein says that millennials want experiences; they don’t feel the need to own cars.
“No matter what we think of autonomous vehicles, for all the safety we add, the less joy we have,” said Roy. However, in an article at Jalopnik, he laid out the premise in a way that blew my mind:
“The Autonomotive Singularity is the idea that human input is the weakest link in the transportation chain, manifested to its logical end. It is Uber meets Skynet. It is the sun around which every digital automotive ‘advancement’ currently orbits. These comprise everything car enthusiasts claim to hate. Traction control. Lane Control. Stability Control. Automatic Braking. Steering-by-wire. And of course — the final enemy — Autonomous Driving (or AD). The latter is the glue that bonds these technologies together, and it will harden, inexorably, as legal and technological barriers are crossed, until some combination of economic, cultural and psychological factors remove steering wheels from cars altogether.”
Is it logical to own a car?
Parker chimed in to assert that the emotional connection we have with cars is like no other, and I agree. I grew up with a dad who took me to car shows regularly, and instilled in me a deep appreciation for the driving machine. It may be illogical to have an emotional connection to a car, but some believe that that’s what it’s all about.
“Eighty percent of what we do as humans is not justified – we have been ‘out of warranty’ since we started building fires,” said Torchinsky. “Cars are illogical and beautiful. There will always be a justification for driving.”
“We can’t bury our head in the sand,” Patrick agreed. “Driving is important. What’s interesting is that no one knows what the end game is. It’s the ultimate form of cruise control.”
Indeed. We can’t see into the future to know how future generations are going to relate to cars, and if we who love to drive will be considered relics at some point. Regardless, it doesn’t appear the autonomous car movement is going anywhere but up.
“Although technology has begun to dilute our relationship to driving, it cannot dilute our relationship to the vehicle, both literal and figurative, that takes us where we choose to go, not just because it can, but because it’s ours. Enthusiasts love cars not merely because of what they are, but because they are an extension of the self,” said Roy via Jalopnik.
When I told my husband, the Range Rover cult follower, about this discussion, he said, “If you want public transport, take the bus. Or build a train.”
So which are you? Are you going to embrace the autonomous trend, or will you, as Patrick George said, be the one shouting that they will have to take your steering wheel from your cold, dead hands?