Thursday, September 27, 2012

Also, who would I give the finger to?

Decades from now, this blog could very well rank on a par with the "Bah! Man will never fly, harrumph!" predictions of the early 20th century. I'll take that chance.

Driverless cars? Apparently that could be a thing soon. 

I have at least one friend who loves this idea. He's legally blind. I understand his enthusiasm, as I would of anyone for whom mobility is an issue of dependence. I did a lot of walking around Lafayette in my high school days, so I get it. And studies show that not having to undertake the rigors of driving during transit leaves people calmer and happier. "Arrive human," as one activist put it in a book I read once. (I'm nothing if not thorough with my citations.)

Still, I'm not sure if I like the idea of driverless cars. Why?

1) I like to drive. The Wall Street Journal insists that the American love affair with cars is fueled (literally) by an aggressive petroleum industry. It's an intriguing argument, but one that doesn't explain my interest at all. For me, driving is about being in control of my mobility and about strengthening my reflexes and intuition, which in turn help in other aspects of my life. While many motorists speak fetishistically about the roar of the engine, the squeal of the tires and how fast they can get it up, that isn't the attraction for me. If my car was a hover vehicle powered by Pine Sol, the thrill would be the same for me. Also, I keep weird hours and tend to live in places where public transportation is referred to as euphemistically as Barack Obama and consequently funded as such.

2) I like vehicles. As a child, I had hundreds of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. Later, I had cars I could sit on and push up and down the sidewalk with my feet. After that, a bicycle. Then, way after that, real automobiles. No matter what age I was, I treated them right. I pretended to fix my toy cars. I got a maintenance manual for my bike when I was 10 years old and kept my wheels in tip-top shape. I've done the same for both motor vehicles I've had, as well as for most things I own. I keep appliances for a very long time and running as smoothly as possible. And it started because I liked cars all those years ago.

3) I'm a good driver. In the 14 years I've had a driver's license, I've never been in an accident or even a passenger in an accident (knock on wood). I've gotten one traffic and one parking ticket each, but the defensive driving course I took as a result of the traffic ticket taught me tricks I still use today. What I've learned in all this time is that being a smart driver requires a lot of human intellect and savvy. Which is why I wonder:

4) Can drone cars be trusted? I get that we use unmanned drones in Libya (as my fellow liberal friends are always quick to point out, whenever they're worried they come off as liking the president) and that cars can indeed be programmed to safely drive an exact route. My question is, what if it glitches up like computers tend to do? Can an automatic car take me to Walgreen's on an impulse trip at midnight if I need Alka-Seltzer? Can it parallel park on Carondelet Street in New Orleans at lunchtime? Even if they do have fallback driver controls — which some say they might not have — doesn't that imply that I'll have to sideseat-drive anyway? I fail to see how having to pay attention like a driver, without actually being able to drive, is an improvement. And that's a best-case scenario. At worst, I picture a Robocop-vs.-ED-209-type battle on the freeways. Brains vs. Bots as fostered by technological arrogance. And now here's Michael Bay with the traffic report!

5) Does this address our traffic and pollution issues? I don't see how it could in a notable fashion, aside from more efficient public transportation as a result of programmed routes. If that isn't going on already. Knight Rider may drive itself, but it still has to go to the gas station. And no doubt looks forward to it.

6) What happens when vandals strike? Cars today are complicated enough without the potential for full-on hackery. Could a prankster reprogram a car's route in the same way they can rig autocorrect on a word-processing program to change every word to "bitch"? On the other hand, it is hilarious to imagine a carjacker forced to endure a ride to Hobby Lobby because that's where the car has to go.

7) You still have to own and maintain the car. While a lot of drivers don't know jack about their cars, even the most illiterate motorists can identify problems through driving. We stand the potential of losing that intuition at a time when car trouble could become a lot more troublesome.

Despite all this, the auto-driving concept could be useful for certain situations, including for the blind, children, emergency enforcement and military, if the technology catches up to the potential pitfalls. In that respect, it's a worthwhile pursuit. 

Just don't sell it as the golden ticket to toss our licenses forever. That's a non-starter.

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