Tech Speak: Adulthood, Statistical Analysis, & The Self Driving Car (Or Yet Another Example of How The Simpson’s Were Way Ahead of the Curve)
Recently there has been a bevy of articles bouncing around the web dealing with the pro’s and con’s of the production of cars, trucks, and other related auto-motive vehicles which have the ability to drive themselves. And as giddy as I am on the one hand about a technology that will allow me to reclaim a good 20 to 40 minutes of my day for more important things (napping for one… making funny faces in the rearview mirror for another…) I can’t help but feel that the members of the Simpson’s ultra-secretive “Stone-Cutters Society” may have been right in holding back certain technological innovations —of an electrical persuasion— because in a world which finds itself increasingly dubious about the overall usefulness of those of us suffering from a bad case of Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens, some Genie’s are best left in their bottles.
But before someone from one of the tech companies (or one of their more ravenous fan boys) starts screaming “Luddite! Luddite!” or worse yet “Think of the children! Won’t somebody please think of the children!” let me clarify where I’m coming from. Automotive tech, or better yet: tech which allows us to automate motion through the use of mechanical advantage by harnessing one form of energy and transforming it into another, has been with us since some long forgotten genius of aeons past got tired of the rampant faddishness of ‘levers’ and decided to fashion himself a ‘gear.’ How he or she managed to do this still remains a mystery for the ages, but the first of the ‘Gearheads’ is deserving of equal amounts of back patting and blame, as they pretty much institutionalized the pursuit of ‘maximum laziness,’ and our modern societies dependence on (and infatuation with) all things mechanized.
To some degree it goes without saying that “we” as a species like ‘things’ that do stuff for ‘us,’ especially when said ‘thing’ gives ‘us’ the ability to do something which we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The issue here is not whether this a good or useful inclination/infatuation to have, but rather that our ability to take previously separate pieces of unrelated mechanized implements and bring them together in one place, under the auspicious of an operating principle that doesn’t necessarily require human input to do its job (and that’s operational parameters require persons with a great deal of specialized training to maintain) can have a detrimental effect to the ‘human’ psyche because it stunts our ability to deal with the fundamental problem which is derivative of our state of being. Namely that an individuals growth, development and sense of self as a person tends to be a byproduct being able to do something for themselves, and by doing so —acquiring the skills needed to do ‘it’ well.
And here’s where the current push by tech companies to have us hand over our keys to their latest version of an onboard operating system with a GPS becomes a real problem…
What’s in front of your drivers seat? Driverless Cars & The Lonely Roadways of Tomorrow
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to find out that 100% of car accidents involve cars and that close to 99.9% of all car accidents happen while someone is sitting behind the wheel. And it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the single most lethal place to be sitting when in the midst of an accident is in the drivers seat. However, if you look at the 2011 Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collision Statistics Report the numbers might surprise you. Given that as of 1992 there has been a net decrease in the number of collisions, injuries and fatalities being suffered by Canadian motorists on a year to year basis.
“Why is that?”
There are a variety of reasons for this positive downwards trend and some of them can be attributed to advances in car safety technology. Over the past 20 years we have seen improvements to the overall design of cars, the proliferation of such life saving devices as airbags and seat belts, the advent of panels and chassis which crumple intentionally on impact, and the creation of better forms of breaking technology. But the reasons for these positive trends aren’t technological alone; as over the same period, we have seen governments and insurance companies get behind accident prevention in a big way. We’ve seen the growth and development of graduated licensing programs and a movement towards having stricter screening procedures put in place to identify problematic drivers amongst both everyday motorists and the elderly.
Organizations like M.A.D.D, iDrive, Operation Lookout, RAID and local police detachments have all done an amazing job of raising awareness about the dangers of impaired driving. And they have done this by targeting and challenging both drivers and their passengers to become better at monitoring their own behaviour, so they can ensure that other people remain safe.
The problem is that in their most extreme incarnation, driverless cars (and their manufacturers) are treating ‘drivers’ as a problem that needs to be removed, rather than as a person who could use a certain degree of help, depending on their particular mental or physical state. For instance, in his article “How practical is Google’s driverless car?” the CBC’s Andre Mayer takes a look at Google’s driverless prototype. The prototype itself doesn’t have a steering wheel, gas pedal or break. In fact, all the ‘passenger’ has to do is tell the car where he or she would like to go and indicate when they would like to stop.
Writing in a similar vein George Dvorsky’s “No Humans Required: Army Convoy Drives Itself,” takes a look at the Army and Marine Corp’s Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System Program. The AMAS program is a joint venture between the US Army and Lockheed Martin designed to create a driverless vehicle that will keep soldiers safe by taking them out of the drivers seat. Thus reducing the human cost associated with having a military convey getting hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), a guerrilla attack, or friendly fire.
In both cases, the person who would have been driving the vehicle is taken out of the drivers seat and relegated to the role of a passenger (that is, if they are even allowed to enter the vehicle in the first place). Now I’m not arguing that these two examples represent a like for like comparison as keeping soldiers safe is an undeniably laudable use of driverless technology, but doesn’t it stand to reason that in non-combat environments, taking someone out of the drivers seat does nothing more than undermine at least one (if not several) of the primary purposes of owning a vehicle in the first place? (i.e.- acquiring the skills that you need to become a good driver and accepting the responsibilities that go hand in hand with piloting a machine that could end either your or someone else’s life if misused.)
Driving is a skill. It is a learned behaviour that can be employed in ways that can placed on a spectrum that runs all the way from benign to dangerous, but despite the potential perils that can be associated with some of the more extreme and intoxicated forms of driving, it remains one of the few universally accepted, non-work-related, lifetime achievement indicators open to us in a culture that is increasingly dismissive of many of the activities and pastimes which used to be associated with making a certain amount of headway towards attaining that elusive state known as ‘adulthood.’
So does anyone remember the good old days when you didn’t need a computer to tell you how to turn on your own damn car?
The purpose of technology (especially at the point where it intersects with the individual) should not be to willfully march us —in this case, being those people who it is slated to replace— to the edge of obsolescence. Rather, its application should be about making things better for individuals by either augmenting their existing abilities or giving them a hand up when faced with a particular issue. And as such, I’m all for the use of driverless cars as a means to help enable those who are in need of help due to disease, physical disability, or age related infirmity, but there is more to driving than simply getting from point A to point B. Because when it comes down to it, the issue at the centre of this debate is not whether driverless cars might prove useful or not, but whether we trust ourselves to work towards bringing an end to a negative aspect of something for which we are the root cause.
And if you are of the opinion that yes we can…
Then maybe thee Stone-Cutters weren’t so far wrong after all…