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Philosophy of Driverless Cars

I promise this will be more fun than it sounds.  

I geek out over many things, but few things get me as excited as the intersection of technology and humanity, and where that intersection will lead us in the near future.  I do my best to stay on top of news in general, but I will always take the time to read anything about some technology that is destined to change our lives.  Most of this involves AI in its various forms, and driverless cars could be one of the most fundamental changes to the day to day life of an American in the next 20 years or so.  

There are many unknowns in that future, and this episode of Radiolab I just listened to made me think more closely about a couple of them: how do we program these cars for safety, and what happens to the economy surrounding driving when we all stop it and become passengers?

To the first point, this was an issue I was introduced to a few years ago.  Say your car realizes it is set for a collision on its current course and it needs to correct.  It can either run into a sedan with one person inside, or a motorcycle whose driver is wearing no helmet.  It’s possible that automakers could develop algorithms to help their cars determine the best course of action in a situation like this, one that would be the most likely to result in zero deaths.  Based on the available information in this situation, it seems likely that your car would steer into the sedan because a collision with a helmetless motorcycle rider is more likely to be fatal.  The car is choosing to hit someone.  What if the driver of the sedan isn’t wearing a seatbelt?  What if they’ve recently had surgery that actually makes them much more vulnerable to injury than the motorcyclist?  You can imagine any number of variables the car’s AI isn’t aware of that could result in it making a fatal choice.  This is essentially a very real, very strange Trolley Problem.  

In my humble opinion, it’s vital that carmakers work with the government to establish industry-wide regulations that result in the safest possible environment for us and create a level playing field from car manufacturer to car manufacturer.  This is the essence of what government regulation exists to achieve.  I fear that this situation, though, opens the door for any of the many groups whose members would stand to lose a great deal economically if driverless cars become the norm to step in and use fear tactics on the public to push back against this technology.  

This would be a huge mistake.  The very act of shifting to driverless cars will save thousands of lives in the first year alone.  People die in accidents constantly in this country, and while safety measures in cars have increased steadily since the days of the Model T, we still take it as a given that for everyone to travel as we do today, some people just have to die.  They are sacrifices to speed and convenience and, in the case of those killed by semis carrying retail goods at maximum speeds for maximum hours, low prices.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  I’m not suggesting that driverless cars would result in zero deaths, but the amount would shrink so dramatically that it’s quite possible that statistically, the number would be nonexistent.  This would be a huge boon to humanity.

Which brings me to the second point: the economical impact of no more drivers.  The most obvious victims of this economic shift would be truckers, and the industries that have arisen to support them (namely rest stops).  Truckers belong to a hell of a union, and being a union man myself I expect no less than their union fighting to the death to keep their jobs viable, as it should.  Worker productivity would shift in every city except New York as people begin clocking in at the start of their commute, since their cars can serve as traveling offices.  

New Yorkers will still be trapped underground, cursing the delayed train in front of them.  

We wouldn’t even need to own cars anymore, really.  Imagine one giant fleet shifting around a city, all cars communicating with one another to organize a maximally efficient flow of traffic through a groupmind like that of ants, or a flock of birds.  Or if you do own a car, you don’t need to park it any more.  It can drop you off at work and go off into the city making money for you for the next eight hours, acting as a taxi to strangers while you work in your office.  The implications are endless.

But as I mentioned, this will result in a loss of thousands and thousands of jobs, if not millions.  To which I say: at what point does all our technology simply allow us to stop working?  

What is the point of developing all this convenience if we all just have to keep working forty hours a week at moderately suffocating jobs that make someone else a great deal more money than what we’re making?  When do we cede enough of the grunt work to machines so that we just work if we want to?  “Thank you, truckers.  We appreciate all the work you’ve done for us over the decades.  You don’t need to do that any more, and we don’t need you to do anything else, so, just hang out for a while I guess?  Start a hobby?”  As our technology increases, more and more jobs are replaced and general quality of life increases, but we’re losing employment.  This is untenable under current economic models and I for one would like to see currency completely eliminated from human society.  Short of that, have you heard the good news about universal basic income?

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.


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