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The Jeeps Look Up: on driverless vs. drones

I don’t drive. I hate driving. In high school, my driving instructor waited until I was trying to make a left turn in an intersection to start screaming “You’re trying to kill us!” Then I pulled over to the side of the road and said: “You will never speak to me that way ever again,” and quit the class. (What I should have done, instead of quitting, was gotten really great at driving, and then used those skills to scare the shit out of him during some later exam.) I still remember how cars work, but I have no urge to drive one. Neither did Ray Bradbury, for that matter. I’m in good company.

So I understand the charm of driverless cars, because I understand the charm of not driving. I understand that having a driverless or autonomous car could be safer than entrusting a vehicle to a person who may be drunk, distracted, or otherwise incapacitated. And I think that economies and air quality improve when we invest in more public transit. I think that instead of focusing on cars for a more sustainable and equitable future, we should focus on transit, and bike lanes, and telecommuting. (Because let me tell you — that office tower isn’t doing the environment any big favours, either. And sitting at that desk is slowly killing you. And Slack lets you keep conversations about workplace harassment and pay equity. And, and, and.)

But at the same time, I recognize that a) some people still need cars, and b) innovations in the automotive industry can turn into better products for drivers and non-drivers alike. Like, for example, Volvo’s IntelliSafe system. IntelliSafe feels like it could be driverless already — the collision detection, blind spot warning system, 360-degree camera system, and all the other features make the car more aware, as well as the driver. The driver becomes just one part of an integrated system, rather than the prime mover. Keep in mind that the word “cybernetics” stems from the Greek word for “pilot” or “steersman.” As cars grow more aware, that’s what drivers become — steersmen, not stuntmen.

However, the trouble with driverless cars is not their technological feasibility, it’s their liability and accountability. If a driverless car gets in an accident, who is to blame? Whose insurance pays out? Whose premiums get raised? Not to mention the fact that traffic might actually increase with the arrival of these vehicles.

Enter drones. Sure, you can control a car with one. That’s already happened. But that’s only half the solution. The other half is the shut-in economy.

Say what you want about Uber-nomics, and the gig/freelance/shut-in/Dickensian urchin economy (and there’s a lot to say about all that), but past a certain point, there’s no reason for your car’s driver to be in the car with you. What does exist is a legion of part-time workers who can complete a drone-driving program and don’t even need to own a car to make money. And if they lose control of the vehicle due to signal latency issues? That’s when a driverless system could kick in. Or a designated driver (see what I did, there?) could take the controls, thumbing into the driver interface thanks to a pre-approved biometric whitelist.

The neat thing about this is that you get to keep your mobile fuckden status symbol throne of seething rage car, without ever having to take responsibility for it. Sure, you would pay for it, and fuel/charge it, and probably keep it clean, but the chain of decisions about what to do with it — beyond where to hang your rosary — would vanish. All of the style. None of the substance. Bliss.

“But would that really be safe?” you’re asking.

Well, I suspect it might actually be safer than asking a drone pilot to shoot bunker-buster missiles into densely-packed neighbourhoods based on camera input, data mining, and bit of HUMINT. It’s about as a safe as long-distance surgery performed by robot. Both of those things happen, already, and both processes are just as vulnerable to technological and human foibles as driving. Is getting the kids to soccer really more dangerous than heart surgery? Is your still-drunk 11:48 dash to Taco Bell more fraught than counter-terrorism efforts? Probably not. Probably, you could trust an auto-pilot (see? this is so much fun!) to do the driving for you.

At least, I would. Anything to avoid driving. Or buying a car.

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  1. April

     /  May 3, 2015

    A driverless car doesn’t need to be designed around the expectation that someone will be sitting at the front, facing forward, with legs and arms manipulating the controls. You could make it a small living room.

    Or better yet, a capsule hotel style bedroom.

    Road trips would become amazing. You set out at about 9pm. Tweet a little bit on your mobile internet connection, then unfold the bed and tuck in. While you’re asleep the car steers itself toward your destination. It enters a parking lot and automatically pays for a berth. Once parked, it begins charging automatically. By the time you wake up, you’re a third of the continent over, your car is freshly charged, there’s a hotel that rents out showers next door, and you have an entire day to play around in the city before you need to start on the next leg of your trip.

    I want this. I really, really want this.

  2. Scott

     /  May 3, 2015

    Forget about liability and accountability – what about the choice?

    A cat jumps out in front of your car. Do you perform an emergency swerve of the car to avoid the cat, putting your passengers at (some level of) risk? What if instead of a cat, it’s a person? What if the only way to swerve around the person will result in a front on collision with another car? Or a school bus?

    Human drivers make choices about the value of human life.

    How do you feel about your car’s AI making these life-or-death decisions? Choosing to kill YOU to prevent injury to the passengers in the oncoming school bus?

    In the future you may be a casualty of Asimov’s Zeroth Law of Robotics.

  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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