The Cost of Self-driving Cars

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

― Jack Kerouac

The sweet feeling of freedom at age 16 with your first driver’s license. The old red pickup with 200,000 miles and a busted speedometer that you drove in high school. The bittersweet pang as you watch your clunker driven off the lot, thinking of the defining moments that happened in that car. Your first date. First kiss. Sitting in the car for 15 minutes sweating up the courage to go to a job interview. Later on, the satisfaction of buying that first car. Road trips that define friendships for a lifetime to come. The classic minivan family vacation.

No, this isn’t  product placement for GM. Cars, while being a simple utility, are engrained in our national and personal stories. They do more than just get us from point A to point B. Getting behind the wheel literally (and figuratively) puts fate in our own hands.

I last wrote in this blog one year ago, when I started (and got very distracted from) a series on new car technologies. It’s apparent that we should be talking about a single new car technology: self-driving cars.

They’ll be here soon–very soon. Most projections have a significant percentage of self-driving cars on our roads by 2020, but the technology will be ready even before then. Given a few more years, and the (projected) numbers increase exponentially.

Before you get fired up and start rapping off all the benefits of an autonomous fleet of cars, I’m well aware they are many. Drastically reduced accidents and deaths. Reduced traffic. Increased fuel economy. Less pollution. Improved accessibility to cars (the young, the old, the disabled, the blind). Being able to have a car pick up your kids when you are stuck at the office. Or drive you home when you have a few too many after a shift. We could go on.

The safety improvements alone are a major selling point, BUT (you knew it was coming), just because something can improve safety doesn’t mean we have to adopt it. We could raise the driving age to 25, have a max driving age of 70, institute a national speed limit of 30 miles per hour.  We could all drive tanks. Obviously these are ridiculous, and the costs would be very high, but they would certainly save lives.

The point here is this: innovations that improve safety, convenience, etc. all come at a cost. With some things the price is low, such as seatbelts; they don’t really have any drawbacks, and they save countless lives each year.  The cost may also be high, such as drastically lowering the speed limit or raising the driving age. As a society we can’t accept the costs of these changes (limited mobility for teenagers, inconvenience for parents, much longer commute times or more limited commute distances), so we accept the higher fatality rates that naturally follow. It isn’t necessarily bad or good, it’s just the cost which we are or are not willing to accept.

With that said, what would be the cost of self-driving cars?

I mentioned earlier that these cars will be able to drive our elderly and handicapped (and kids), which will improve the accessibility of resources to those who are currently limited. This seems like a definite advantage.

However much an advantage it will be, it does have a cost, which is a human one.  As with many new technologies which improve convenience, tasks which once required more direct (hands on, face-to-face) involvement become outsourced to machines or algorithms. Are our lives really so busy, so important that we can’t leave work to pick up our children? Take a day off to take care of our aging parents? Have a human system to assist those who are disabled?

Yes, all of these tasks inconvenience us, but it is that exact inconvenience which makes our world human. The sacrifices we make for our children, our parents, and those more vulnerable in society give meaning to those relationships, as we have to give part of ourselves for the other person. It seems a cold world in which we have to delegate these tasks to machines, instead of realizing the importance of the human connection they bring.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this post, when I talked about the emotional and meaningful connection that our culture has with cars.  Why is this? Why do we care so much about getting a driver’s license, have nostalgia for our old beat-up trucks, and take so much pride in our cars?

In a sense, cars are a physical metaphor for our free-will and independence. They give us the freedom to go anywhere we choose (assuming roads go there). We are physically connected to our cars when we drive; my foot controls the pedal and my hands control the wheel. My mind is responsible for having the knowledge to drive, avoid accidents, and get to where I am going. In an increasingly outsourced society, driving is something that keeps us connected to the physical world.

If we accept self-driving technology, we will no longer be in control of our cars. They will become one more piece of technology that separates us from being physically connected to the world. Without that physical connection, our cars will lose the magic which they have had for the past century. The joy of getting your license, getting that first car, the pride and satisfaction of having navigated yourself through the world, will be something of the past.

So, are the benefits worth the cost? I can’t deny that a lot of lives would be saved, a lot less gas would be burned. Is that worth the loss of human connection that would follow? The further disconnect between ourselves and the physical world?

The subtitle of this blog is searching for humanity in a technological world.  Self-driving cars would be another innovation that removes the human aspect from part of our lives, a part that we have placed a high value on for the last century. For that reason, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the cost.

To quote the band Incubus (a phrase that hasn’t been said since 2004), I’m beginning to find that when I drive myself, my light is found.



Driving Into the Future

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed a quickly emerging trend in new car technologies: park assist, self driving cars, eye level projection screens, etc. This is the first in a series of posts looking at how these new innovations will impact how we drive into the future.

Part One: Driving Distracted

I’ll admit, this video impressed me. Sleek, fast, and confident, it makes an impact. But when we look critically at the core of what distracted driving means, the illusion starts to become a bit more clear.

Let’s start by looking at the logic underlying the new technologies connecting our cars and phones. The current social norm is that people use their phones while driving. Texting has become less acceptable, but we still do it, and talking while driving is still widespread and legal in most states.

Secondly, the way most of us use our phone is by physically looking down at it, thus taking our eyes off the road. Common perception is that the physical distraction of looking down causes the danger of distracted driving. So if we can have a way to use phones without taking our eyes off the road,  we can improve driver safety. This is the argument put forth by companies marketing these products. However, many experts in driving safety think that these arguments are based on faulty claims.

All Seeing is Not Created Equal
If you read any popular psychological theories, you will notice the common theme that as humans, we strongly overestimate our cognitive abilities. Our brains make us think that we notice everything that happens in front of us, and that we have a great ability to multitask. However, the reality is in fact opposite; we are poor multitaskers and commonly miss things that happen right before our eyes.

These are the ideas underlying the concept of cognitive distraction, which is essentially how even though our eyes may be physically on the road, if our minds are not focused on driving we will miss things even if they may be in our visual field. Studies have shown (based on the work of Dr. Paul Atchley) that cognitive distraction is just about as dangerous as physical distraction (i.e. looking down).

If this is true, then hands free or screen projection technologies are no safer than normal phone use, as they will lead to equally dangerous distraction. I may take this a bit further and say that they have the potential to be more dangerous, as they give a strong illusion of safety, tricking our minds into thinking we aren’t distracted at all.

Social Norms
We’ve all felt that familiar pull, that undeniable urge to take just one quick look at our phone to see who the text is from, besides I don’t see any other cars on the road and it will be quick and I’m a safe driver anyways so this is ok  and it might be important. Yea, we all rationalize it, don’t deny. But why is the urge so strong that we disregard what we know about safety to fulfill it. Some would say because we can’t handle being alone.

Or maybe it’s the fear of missing out, that if I don’t read this text right now some great chance at success will be unfulfilled, an opportunity gone forever. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem rational. There seems to be no good reason for this widely accepted social norm.

So, the question that naturally follows is, why not change it? Public perception does seem to be shifting a bit. Public service ads are pretty much on point with the “it can wait” theme. This is only a partial answer though, because we rationally know it can and should wait, but if we aren’t more intentional about locking the phone away, that urge often gets the best of us.  And if we blindly accept the new “safe” technologies and don’t look more critically, we’ll continue to perpetuate the illusion.


Communication Breakdown: The Text Message

If you’ve grown up in the era of cell phones, texting, and emoticons, the following scenario is likely very familiar:

(Set scene) Group of guys/girls hanging out.  One [guy/girl] is romantically interested in person of opposite sex, wants to text said person.  Asks group what to send in text message.  Group discusses word choice, smiley faces, and level of flirtatiousness in message.  After 5 minutes, it is agreed upon to send “Hi :)”   (End scene).

First off, don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dating in the 21st century, I’m way too out of date to do that.  For example, I first learned what emojis were this morning, and I still don’t really grasp the concept.  Rather the above scene will be used to illustrate some important points about how modern methods of communication affect us.  At some point in time, most of us have been a part of such a scene, either on the sending or receiving end.  Texting has become a fairly standard part of the progression of modern relationships.  I don’t find the trivial details of texting and relationships to be too interesting, but we can learn a lot when we dive into why we are so drawn towards texting.

So, why are we so inclined to send text messages?  To list a few of their merits, they are fast, easy, fairly inconspicous, and very convenient.  Specifically though, why do we choose to text in the situation described above, when you are interested in a guy/girl?  It’s certainly not faster or more convenient, as a quick call to say “would you like to go to dinner” would be twenty times faster and require less effort than navigating the intricacies of texting.

The reason we are so drawn to texting is because it eliminates risk.  When we call someone up, a direct connection is made with that person, which puts us at risk.  At risk for rejection, embarrassment, failure, or even success. Texting allows us to hide behind the glass walls of an LCD touch screen, providing a safe barrier between us and the other person.  You don’t have to have that gut-check moment right before asking the girl out and waiting for her to reply yes or no while you hold your breath for what seems like an eternity but is really 2 seconds; instead you just type, tap send, and wait.

I like to use dating as an easy example, but this holds true for any communication.  If you don’t want to talk to your parents about what’s really going on in your life, you can just text them that you’re ok.  If you don’t want to confront a friend about some problem, just hash it out over an hour long texting conversation.   In any relationship we can avoid risk by using indirect methods of communication (texting, email) instead of on the phone or face to face.

Pause here: I’ve probably run into a bit of dissention with you, the reader.  You validly want to point out that the way we communicate has constantly been changing over time.  First we grunted at each other, then we developed words, then wrote those words down on stone and pieces of bark, then talked through a nationwide system of wires.  Now we send signals up to a satellite, back down, and into a little black device.  What difference does it make, you say?  So now we text instead of calling or writing letters, it’s just part of the natural continuous progression.  What we say hasn’t changed, just the means we use to say it.

Which is a good argument. However, the key point here is that how we communicate fundamentally affects the nature of our relationship with that person.  Asking someone out, calling an old relative you haven’t talked to in years, or talking over an important problem with a friend face to face are all hard, and as we saw earlier, involve risk. But this risk, this leap of faith across the boundary between you and the Other that puts your neck on the line, is what creates the foundation of the relationship.  By opening up and exposing yourself and your vulnerabilities to the other, you inherently make the focus of the relationship about that person, not yourself.  And a true relationship is one in which you desire for the good of the other person as much or more as for yourself.

Contrast this with texting. When we text, we avoid risk and don’t truly extend ourselves to the other person. This causes us to focus the relationship inwardly on ourselves: what should I send to make her come to the party with me tonight? what can I say to make her not be mad at me any more? what do I need to say to get my parents off my back? You get the point.  The absence of risk on my part makes me unconsciously focus on what I can get out of the relationship instead of what can I give.

This is not meant to be a full fledged attack on modern communication. In some, if not most cases, texting likely does no harm. But as modern relationships and communication have undoubtedly changed, it’s something may have more impact than it seems. If you think about it a bit and look at how your own experiences have played out, you might find a bit of truth in it.



Top 8 Reasons to Use a Map

As the writer of a blog that (mostly!) criticizes technology, it’s not surprising that I don’t have a smart phone.  However, I was almost changed of my stubborn, “dumb” phone ways a few weeks ago.

I was a groomsman in a good friend’s wedding in Savannah, GA ,a city I don’t know too well.  Between rehearsal dinners, wedding errands, and jumping around hotels, I realized that I was completely dependent on my friends’ iPhones to navigate the city.

What’s the point of not having a smart phone if I have to rely on others’ phones to get by?  How can I be so dependent and helpless in a new city?  As you can guess, my world began to collapse.


Then someone suggested that I just get a map.  So I grabbed a free, not-to-scale cartoon map from the Holiday Inn and set out to conquer the city.  Here’s why you should too:

8.  Blindly following Siri’s directions gets you from A to B, but it doesn’t help you actually learn the layout of a city.  Using a map helps you understand the layout and geography of a new locale.
7.  It makes you feel like Ferdinand Magellan.  Just on a slightly smaller scale.
6. Maybe it’s just me, but looking at a map and planning your day over coffee with friends is a great way to start a morning.
5. When a phone has only one bar, you’re in trouble.  When a map has only one bar, all it means is that you know exactly where you’ll end up that night.
4. You can fix a map with tape.
3. It’s a great skill to have, and the more you practice the easier it gets.
2. Contrary to what Verizon wants you to think, there’s a lot of un-connected places even in America where you can’t get cell phone or GPS service.
1. If the world goes the way of The Walking Dead, you’ll want to have your map of Georgia on hand.


So go grab your map, machete, and Indiana Jones hat and go discover the unknown.  I’ll see ya there.

Images from:

There and Back Again: A Tale of Two Weeks Without the World Wide Web

-by a lovely guest contributor

2 weeks, 5 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes.

Just kidding, but it has been about two weeks since I’ve been sans the world wide web.  I’m not going to lie, it hurts.  It hurts like giving up a cigarette, a Lenten promise, or quitting something cold turkey.  When you grow used to the web…it’s tough.  No internet means:

  • No TV
  • No Youtube
  • No email
  • No news
  • No Google search
  • No online banking (What?  You mean I actually have to keep track of my spending!?!?)

The internet is the gateway, the key to the city, and without it, life is rough out here people.  It’s hard to entertain a brain used to megapixels and Vine videos.  I’ve learned two things on my journey without the web:

1. The real world is out there for you to see, with or without the internet.  It’s like a really confident single woman. If you are into it, that’s cool, but if you aren’t…it’s not waiting around or pining over you.  Sunsets don’t replay or stop and pick up where you left off to watch 6 straight episodes of “The New Girl.”  Relationships don’t have pause buttons or text message breaks or instant replay.

The internet and media give the illusion that you have everything at your fingertips.  When you have access to it, it transports you to a place where this illusion of everything warps the reality of what is around you.  The world is happening when you are glued to your screen, and that screen is promising you something that can never fulfill you and forces you to miss out on Life.

2. The internet and technology make the pace of life so rapid that without it, you have to lag behind, often just enough to see how stupid it is to rush through life.  My job is a constant race to complete task after task, compressing productivity into the pressure cooker that is my 8 hour day.  Why should I spend my afternoon and night tripping over my laptop search button trying to find the quickest, easiest, closest, simplest way to make dinner, look up a phone number, or watch a 10 second cat video?  Why should I attempt to crunch my thoughts into 140 characters when I can journal freely? Why should I catch the Grammy red carped highlights condensed version on Youtube when I can light a candle, sit on my back porch and watch my roommate’s dog run around in the yard?  Technology tricks you into thinking what’s fastest is best, when really you want the best things in life to last as long as possible.

My journey ends here as I have internet again at last.  Will I fall back into old habits (marathon episode viewings of The Only Way is Essex…don’t judge me)?  Who knows, but I do know that I’ve seen the other side.  I’ve been bored, slow, and out of the loop, and for some reason, it was great.

Run and tell that, Charter.

A New Zeitgeist

“You affect the world by what you browse.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

I don’t quite remember the first time I used the internet to search for something. Odds are it was sometime in middle school, when I was loaned my older brother’s AOL desktop computer over a summer. It ran on dial-up but allowed me to Instant Message, which is really all that I cared about at that time. However, I had no idea how significant that simple act would be in the shaping of my world. I, like many of you, grew up during the boom of the internet.

Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore isn’t the man credited with creating the internet. The man from the quote above is. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the man responsible for the invisible machine we call The Internet. Whilst researching for a post to write I came across this quote. Almost as instantly as a Google search, the light bulb for this post lit up. What about a brief look at this quote by the man we should at once praise and curse?


I, again like most of you, get a majority of my information from the internet. I am a product of my generation. During high school, college, and beyond I use the internet to gain access to this unlimited information, and completely waste my time in the form of social media, cat videos, and other nonsense. One thing I have managed to learn through my limited experience is that all of my actions have intended and unintended outcomes. The same is true for anything online. The Google searches (No, I don’t know anyone who uses Bing), time spent surfing, and items shared on Facebook are all tracked by multiple entities. Whether it be government, corporation, employer, like it or not our time spent online is tracked and used for various means. For example, search for car dealerships in your area, see car ads on your Facebook.

So where does the quote come into play? It is a simple question of basic supply and demand. As demand for a certain type of product increases, the supply will increase with it. The entities that monitor internet usage take advantage of the information stored to guide their business practices. Take for example, Grumpy Cat. The popular and hilarious captioned photographs have been transformed from a meme into a recognizable brand. You can now buy grumpy cat merchandise, drink Grumpy Cat coffee drink (Grumppuccino), and soon see the Grumpy Cat movie.

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Secondly, take a look at google’s Zeitgeist, their annual list of what was most popular and trendy from the previous year. The word Zeitgeist literally means “spirit of the age or time” in German. The trends on this list are a typical conglomeration of pop culture and events from the year. In typical fashion, it mostly lists things that are, in my opinion, insignificant. Just look at the screenshot of the most searched people throughout the year. It is clear that a large amount of the internet users’ priorities do not lie in pursuit of knowledge, truth, or self-improvement. Through the Zeitgeist, Google has provided businesses around the world easy access to what the world currently demands. All that remains is for businesses to begin supplying us  more information about Miley Cyrus and friends, which is exactly what we asked for this year.

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 9.05.42 PM

I know, I know…here we go again. Another rant about how pop culture is ruining everything and blah blah blah. Thankfully, No. I don’t think pop culture is evil. I’m not going to tell you to abandon all of your TMZ searches or insomniac meme browsing. The goal of this blog is to engage people in a critical analysis of their use of technology. This means taking a close look at how we utilize this amazing tool that we have at our disposal. If you find that you can better balance your internet time between informative texts and videos as well as grumpy cat, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world (hopefully). I do however wholeheartedly agree with the words of Berners- Lee. We as consumers affect the world more than we realize.

Thankfully, I think people are realizing this. NPR reported recently that there was an increase in educational Youtube videos from summer 2012 to summer 2013. Hopefully people are already jumping on the trend of using the internet to better ourselves mentally a little bit more. As for myself, I am making it one of my goals to engage with information online at least once or twice a day.  Websites such as Youtube, Wikipedia, and iTunes podcasts are great places to start. For those few who go above and beyond, you can now take open source college classes via podcast, including a list of texts that go along with the course. Currently I am in the process of going through a 24 episode podcast on the history of Ancient Greece from Yale University. Perhaps we can influence those around us to do the same and get this trending.