We’ve discussed a number of issues surrounding the coming era of driverless vehicles here, including both benefits and potential pitfalls. But this week there’s a great think piece from Ronald Bailey at Reason which stretches the timeline out a bit further and reaches a dystopian future I hadn’t even considered until now. Sure, it’s fun for some of you to think about summoning an Uber with no driver which can safely whisk you away to your destination. At least when you feel like doing that. But if this artificial intelligence system, free from the imperfections of humans, actually does eliminate (or at least vastly reduce) accidents and deaths on the roadway, how long would it be before the government decides that people are simply too stupid to be trusted driving a car, truck, bus or train? What if they just make it illegal? You know… for our own good. Bailey examines some recent analysis from former GM executive Bob Lutz and National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke.
When self-driving vehicles become safer than human-driven ones, the government will ban people from driving. Or that, at least, is the claim made in some recent articles in Automotive News and National Review. Bob Lutz, former vice chairman and head of product development at General Motors, declares in Automotive News that vehicles “will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years—at the latest—human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.” By the time 20 to 30 percent of vehicles on the roads are fully autonomous, Lutz argues, officials “will look at the accident statistics and figure out that human drivers are causing 99.9 percent of the accidents.” …
Human driving of high-end specialty vehicles will continue, Lutz predicts, but only as an elite pastime confined to country clubs and the equivalent of motorsport dude ranches. “The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it—all will be gone in 20 years,” he writes.
While Lutz is looking at this more from a question of technical evolution, Cooke is summoning up a call to maintain our basic freedom of movement without government scrutiny and tracking. Both of these arguments have merit and are worth a look. But they also tend to gloss over the question which I find even more worrisome. Assuming, as Lutz predicts, that the government effectively bans the production, sale and use of nearly all human-driven vehicles, it follows that current conventional cars, trucks and other conveyances will begin to disappear, along with the skill set for people to operate them even if they could find one.
So, with that in mind… what will you do when that technology stops working?
Just as with most of the rest of our high-tech society, we’re blithely wandering around acting as if this system could never break down and making absolutely no preparations for the day when it might. One sneak attack from our enemies involving some massive EMPs would do the trick. Or a couple of large meteors. For that matter, hackers are getting smarter and more determined just as we turn over more and more of our lives to our technology. A sufficiently determined cyber attack could, in theory, cripple the entire system for months or even years. Anyone in the parts of the country currently freezing under this arctic blast will tell you that it’s probably a long, potentially deadly walk to the grocery store for food right about now.
We’re not just talking about cars here. We’ve outsourced many jobs and, to be honest, aspects of our own thinking to our technology. How many people even know how to use a slide rule anymore? (Believe it or not, back when I went to school and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, you were required to take a class in using a slide rule.) The list is endless, but the cars are probably the most immediate warning sign which the vast majority of Americans can relate to. Do you want to live in a world where there are suddenly no vehicles capable of being operated by people and nobody with the skills to run them even there are?
So are Lutz and Cooke correct? Is the banning of human-driven cars inevitable? Not if the voters stop it. But we haven’t been good at keeping the government in check very much of late. Maybe the cars actually are doomed within your lifetime.