Self-Driving Cars And The Technology Trap


Image from Scania via Quartz

Over the weekend, as reported in Re/Code, Ford announced a successful test of an autonomous car driving in the dark- that is, without some of its equipment working. The car was driving without its camera, relying mainly on laser directions (lidar). Basically, it was like a human having to drive after their headlights went out, on a black moonless night. Or a bright one, where it was still hard to see. You know, just night, basically. Anyway, you and I would be in trouble, but the Ford car wasn’t. This is a big breakthrough.

I’m a passionate advocate of self-driving cars. Not professionally, because who the hell cares what I have to say about it, but personally. It makes me sick and angry to think that one moment of distraction by myself or another driver can kill someone I love or ruin their life forever, that a split second of indecision or mistake can have such a shattering impact. I think we’re going to look back at the era of human-driven cars as a time of unimaginable barbarism, where tens of thousands of people a year were killed and tens of thousands more maimed driving these glass and steel bullets at breakneck speeds. Self-driving cars will also be much better for fuel economy– there will be less driving around confused, less sudden braking, and fewer incidences of inefficient driving, the biggest cause of fuel waste.

There are drawbacks of course- system safety (imagine if a hacker breaks in and messes with V2V or V2I communications), a lack of autonomy, massive disruptions to the insurance industry, etc. There are huge political obstacles, as well as cultural ones. There is also the immediate problem that it will could cause huge layoffs in vulnerable sectors while immediately benefitting corporations. That’s a drawback, and one with unsettling human and political ramifications.

Last week, a fleet of trucks, mainly from Volvo and Daimler, drove themselves in a convoy across Europe, starting from various spots and traveling different distances. The longest went over 2000km. The immediate reaction to this is: amazing! It’s a huge advance in technology, and driver safety. Self-driven trucks can’t fall asleep or drive off the road or follow you all night because you cut them off. They are efficient, being able to drive very close to each other since V2V communication means they can brake or speed up in concert. What we lose in trying to get them to honk at you we gain in safety.

But we also lost jobs. Lots of jobs, which, at least economically speaking, are some of the best opportunities for working class Americans (mostly males) without a secondary education. An average trucker can make $40,000 a year, with salaries reaching over $70,000. That’s a lot of money. It’s one of the last steady jobs, since trucks are the most vital part of our shipping infrastructure.

Unfortunately, those jobs might be going away. There will of course be regulations about having someone behind the wheel, a vital redundancy to ensure safety, and maintain labor peace. But as the technology improves, that will increasingly be seen as just redundant, and companies will start to shed drivers as quickly as possible. Do you think Wal-Mart is really going to concerned about keeping jobs for its truckers?

That’s the problem with this technology. The bottom line will improve for big corporations, and jobs will be lost. In the end, I think that the era of self-driving cars will be more egalitarian, as we’ll all just be paying subscriptions for car services and not having to own (indeed, the entire idea of ownership could start to fade, a topic for another post). But for a while there will be massive disruption, and it will impact the people who have been buffeted the most by changing technology and a shifting economy.

We’re very excited about creating the kind of tech that will take away jobs without really being concerned about what comes next. There are fits and starts, some discussion about it, but these developments aren’t running on parallel tracks. Politically, we’re playing catch-up to technology, which is why demagogues and charlatans can take over our elections. There are a lot of people who are understandably terrified of what is coming next.  It’s fundamentally unequal. We build fireproof skyscrapers of shimmering glass while the city convulses with unchecked violence and burns below.

I look forward to the day where I can call up a car and be picked up autonomously, without having to spend half my money to own a car. I look forward to the day where someone who has to ride 5 buses just to get to work can do the same, for less than they are paying now. But unless we really work on the social and political fallout from these tectonic shifts in labor, the self-driving trucks will be flying along our highways, past cities of tents in the great wilderness of unemployed America.


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