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.