Everyone’s talking about them.
The automakers are scrambling trying to win the market.
“Autonomous” cars, they’re called. The ones that can drive themselves. All we’ll have to do is just sit back and relax.
Imagine the possibilities! No more wasted time on the commute. No more distracted driving. Far fewer accidents on the road.
“We really believe we’re in the midst of an industry that is transforming and we’re working very hard to lead in that transformation,” GM CEO Mary Barra told reporters ahead of GM’s annual shareholders meeting in Detroit.
Google and Tesla are breathing down GM’s neck. It’s a fierce race and we, the public, surely stand to be the beneficiaries. Already we have cars that can parallel park, and that brake when necessary and when we’re not paying attention. Meanwhile companies are testing those that can do far more.
Most of us have seen the media spots on television where the driver is sitting quietly behind the wheel not touching it while the car maneuvers itself down the highway.
Amazing! Who’d have ever thought we could one day be thinking about this, much less watching it happen in front of our eyes?
What’s not to like?
Well, personally, self-driving cars scare me a little.
Because driving is one of my favorite things to do.
And I can just see a future in which I’m not allowed to do it anymore.
Eventually Human Drivers Will Become a Liability
I first became aware of this possibility while working for one of my clients, which just happens to be a law firm. I was doing some research and fell upon the reasoning that basically goes something like this:
- Self-driving cars are safer, and will reduce the number of automobile accidents.
- As self-driving cars become more plentiful on the road, human drivers will be seen as “high-risk” drivers.
- In any accident between a self-driving vehicle and a human-driven vehicle, most likely it will be the human that is at fault, and that human will probably be sued for damages.
- As more of these accidents and lawsuits occur, the public will start to complain about those unsafe human drivers.
- Eventually, laws will be passed prohibiting drivers from driving their own cars, and encouraging them to use self-driving safer vehicles instead.
Bye-bye, driving rights.
Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has already stated that this is coming. According to an article in The Verge:
“Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that cars you can control will eventually be outlawed in favor of ones that are controlled by robots. The simple explanation: Musk believes computers will do a much better job than us to the point where, statistically, humans would be a liability on roadways.”
In Musk’s own words, once the self-driving car becomes a regular part of society, it will be only natural to boot those risky humans out of the picture.
“It’s too dangerous,” Musk said. “You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”
He acknowledges that such a change will take a long time.
According to later updates to the article, Musk backtracked a bit on Twitter, stating that “to be clear,” Tesla was in favor of people being able to drive their cars, but when the self-driving vehicles become safer than human-driven ones, “the public may outlaw the latter.”
Having worked for a legal firm for years, I can definitely see it happening.
A Nation Obsessed with Safety
We see hints of it already. Whatever your feelings on how much access government should be given into our lives, it’s clear that they’ve already dictated how “safe” our cars should be. They’ve required auto manufacturers to make numerous changes to their designs to increase the safety of vehicles.
Take air bags, for instance. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were nonexistent. Even baseline vehicles now must have them. One could argue that they increase safety and save lives—both true. But they also squeeze the bottom line for automakers, which may partially explain why Takata cut corners in choosing the unstable chemical (ammonium nitrate) that fuels their now infamous exploding air bags.
Indeed, as required (not optional) safety features have increased, automakers have struggled to keep prices where people can afford them. Just two years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed that backup cameras—once thought to be a luxury item—be installed on all vehicles by 2018. It’s expected to save up to 70 lives a year.
According to Toyota Tundra Headquarters, the cost will be about $200 more per vehicle—passed on to consumers, of course. According to their website:
“At a cost increase of $200 per vehicle, is it a necessary safety feature or another case of mandatory equipment pushing car prices higher and higher?”
They go on to state:
“As we argued in Dec. 2010 post, new safety regulations have a bit of a checkered history among car buyers and automakers. While several innovations are now seen as no-brainers (i.e., seat belts, air bags, etc…), there is a long-standing argument that skyrocketing new car prices aren’t worth the required safety equipment. The nickel-and-dime approach to adding safety equipment adds up in the long run and many people feel like consumers are paying too much of the burden for the variety of safety and air quality equipment. In the end, it seems that many consumers feel powerless to accept these new standards and pay the additional cost.”
We can argue that the big bad auto makers care only about profits, but the truth is that someone has to pay for all this additional safety equipment, and that person always ends up being the consumer.
Yet we don’t argue, because it’s hard to argue against saving lives. We’ve all heard the stories of children being run over by people backing up in their cars. If cameras can save just one life, then surely they’re worth it, right?
It’s not an easy question, especially when looking at both sides of the issue, including the side of the people who are scraping by and finding it more and more difficult to afford a vehicle.
But we are a nation obsessed with safety. Though life is inherently unsafe, we have managed to build a society in which most of us can live long, safe lives, and of course it makes sense that we want to continue to reduce the risk of injury and death.
But where do we draw the line?
Where do we stop and say, hey, there’s no such thing as complete, 100% safety, and how much of our freedom are we willing to give up to be safe?
Personally, I don’t want to give up my right to drive.
Fond Memories of When Driving Was Unsafe
I have many fond memories of life with vehicles growing up.
I was driving before I had a permit, maneuvering a tractor around the ranch while cleaning out the barn or picking up hay. Later, I was allowed to drive our old pickup (sans seat belts and air bags—gasp!) around the fields and ditchbank to perform various chores, so that when it came time to drive, it wasn’t so entirely new to me.
One of the first vehicles I drove was a stick-shift, an old Dodge truck that my father bought and fixed up with his amazing mechanical abilities that we then took across country to visit my grandmother in New York. It didn’t have air bags either, or a backup camera, and the younger kids didn’t sit in car seats.
Instead, my dad fixed up the bed with foam rubber and sleeping bags so the rest of the family could lay down and sleep while two stayed up front to get us over the road. In this way we made the trip from Colorado to New York in about 42 hours, sparing us the cash it would have cost to stay in hotels.
Of course such a trip would be illegal these days. Which makes me sad. Some of my best memories are of riding in the back of that truck with my siblings, playing games and watching the country pass by out the long rectangular windows of the truck shell.
I have other similar memories. When my mom first drove my older brother and I from New York to Colorado in the first place (to get him to a dryer climate in an effort to help his asthma—it worked), she built up the area behind the front seats with suitcases and blankets and pillows so that it was even with the back seat, creating a sort of bed that we both could lay down on during the trip.
We couldn’t afford to stay in hotels, as we were saving money for a new start in Colorado, so we slept in the back and she rested in front whenever we stopped.
My family did the same years later when my parents were caring for foster children. We had four at a time, in addition to us four kids, and all piled in the back of a beast of a Dodge stationwagon (another of my father’s mechanical projects—he bought it for $300 and then whipped it into shape) to make the trip back to see my grandmother.
Without being able to finagle our trips this way, we never could have gone. We just wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And that would have robbed us all of the joy of knowing my grandmother, who was an amazing lady.
Driving is a Form of Freedom
Today, driving remains one of my favorite things to do. It helps me to clear my head, and to get new perspective on issues I’m facing.
It provides me with a delicious taste of freedom.
My first car was a Dodge Coronet handed down from my older brother, and it was my ticket to the world.
The first car I bought myself was a used Ford Thunderbird, and ever since I’ve chosen cars not for their safety, but for the sheer fun of driving them.
Today I own a Black Chevy Monte Carlo SS (pictured below), my second of this model car, and I’m still amazed by the way the smooth 3.6 L engine gets me over the road.
It’s taken me all over Idaho, down to Colorado and on to New Mexico, and out to the Oregon Coast.
On certain starry nights, I’ve put the cruise on and rolled along remote country roads while poking my head out the sunroof to stare at the universe above me and breathe in the clean, crisp night air. With a new Keith Urban CD in the mix, I have what feels like a certain kind of bliss, a real feeling of being free.
Replace that with some computerized bean-shaped hunk of tin that refuses to go even a mile per hour above the speed limit and has a nervous breakdown if I remove the seat belt for two seconds?
I just hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.