8 Things You Won’t Hear about Self-Driving Cars

It’s official: we’ve entered the era of the “driverless car”, “autonomous vehicle”, the “self-driving car.”

For many, this is a time to jump for joy.  They say we’re nearing a time when human error is finally eliminated from the driving equation. These often loud, increasingly plentiful and convinced people proclaim the whimsical ways in which self-driving cars will save us from ourselves. Plus, those little pods we are to glide along in are pretty damn sleek.

Photo: http://fortune.com/2015/08/31/googles-self-driving-car-austin/
Photo: http://fortune.com/2015/08/31/googles-self-driving-car-austin/

Even those against – or at least questioning the utility of – self-driving cars stop short at offering a mere few concerns. They worry about the affordability of the self-driving cars, how safe they’ll be, whether they will strip people of the joy of driving. They point a nervous finger at our nation’s lack of “smart infrastructure” for self-driving vehicles,  or the potential for insurance and liability issues to skyrocket when robots rather than human drivers are to blame. And the more libertarian among us exclaim how riding with Google is, in essence, riding with “big brother.”

Even more thoughtful skepticism about the promises of new technologies like driverless cars limit their questioning to the cars’ potential to induce urban sprawl:

On average, people around the world spend an hour a day travelling, a pattern that has held for centuries and across cultures. When we are able to eat, sleep and work in our driverless cars, this time will become longer, creating a burst of urban sprawl with its associated increases in energy consumption and adverse impacts on the land.

All of these concerns about self-driving cars are valid and must be reckoned with. Yet, whenever our culture brings forth a new techie fix, I tend to wonder how it will make life significantly better for humans and non-humans. From what I’ve gathered about the panacea that is self-driving cars is that we should expect fewer crashes and greater efficiency:

  • Remember, we dummy drivers with our “human error”, our penchant to become distracted or drive while intoxicated, are removed from the “driverless car.”
  • And on the efficiency side, self-driving cars can get closer to each other, thereby reducing the amount of road space they take up. Plus with their ability to be on call whenever, wherever we need them, fewer of us will need or want to own self-driving cars.

These are certainly worthwhile outcomes.  But they strike me as narrow-minded. It’s as though our culture can’t imagine life without motorized transport.  Instead of questioning the entire premise of automobility, we’re simply trying to create a sleeker, smarter, safer version of that which has to date decimated habitat, landscape, and community.

Bruun and Givoni’s conclusion that “The majority of research money for transport currently goes to technological development with commercial potential” is spot on. We need answers to questions about how self-driving cars will – or won’t – advance human and non-human well-being. We need coherent responses for how self-driving cars will impact:

  1. People’s acquisition of healthy physical activity – we will be likely to sleep, read, and eat in self-driving cars, rather than move about;
  2. People’s experiences of social connectedness and feelings of loneliness – we’ll all be in our own little pods, not connecting or interacting with one another or the natural world in any meaningful way;
  3. People’s identification with, and attachment to, place – places will become as they are now with driving, i.e.,  series of objects to glide by or landscapes to get through;
  4. People’s sense of self-determination and agency – unlike walking, cycling, and even driving today, driverless cars will fail to address our need to feel like active participants in our lives;
  5. People’s development of skill and competency – simply not addressed with self-driving cars. What skill will one need to develop in a driverless pod?;
  6. The laws of physics – yes, self-driving cars may reduce many types of crashes, but not all. What happens when a child darts out in front of a driverless car that’s going 50 mph? Will it defy physics and come to a complete stop on time?;
  7. Our natural world – metals and alloys that make up self-driving cars will still need to be mined. These cars will still need to be built using high energy means, and they’ll still need to be disposed of or recycled under high energy conditions;
  8. Communities more generally – self-driving cars will still require wide roadways, which need to be built and maintained. They will still need to be parked when not in use. Roadways and parking facilities will still contribute to stormwater run-off, habitat destruction, and urban heat-island effects. They will also continue to make it difficult to walk or bike due to the expansive distances between land uses and the need to be forever vigilant of self-cruising pods coming our way.

All of this has me wondering: what if we approach these questions in a “vernacular” fashion? What if we asked how this technology of the driverless car will lift people up? How it will minimize environmental impact while allowing us humans to do for ourselves and others? Surely there are other, more convivial ways of getting us from place to place – perhaps we should explore these ways first.

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