Watch out for robo cars

by Rob Tiller

I expected that self-driving cars would get here eventually, but I was still startled to learn this week that they’re already here. On Sunday the NY Times reported that Google has created vehicles that can steer itself through city traffic without human intervention. http://tiny.cc/f6d1z They’ve logged thousands of road hours without a serious accident. The cars can sense other cars and obstacles and read road signs. Apparently the only common traffic issue they haven’t solved is how to interpret the gestures of a cop directing traffic.

My first reaction was excitement at such amazing technology. As the Times pointed out, there could be major benefits in terms of safety (computers don’t get sleepy or drunk) and energy efficiency (vehicles can be lighter because they won’t be running into each other). And without the need to pay attention to the road, perhaps there will be gains in productivity, or even creativity, where once there was road rage.

I try to make it a rule, where feasible, to embrace change, since change is one of life’s constants. But pretty quickly I started thinking about the downside of robo cars. In the charming animated movie Wall-e, after planet earth is destroyed the remaining humans are cared for by advanced robots, and, relieved of their responsibilities, the humans have become doughy dumb blobs. Will robo cars make us weaker and less connected? When freed of the need to drive, instead of more reading, will the average amount of time spent watching television increase from the already amazing five hours a day? If robo cars are much safer than human driven ones, how long will society tolerate fallible human drivers? Are we coming to the end of driving as we know it?

In my earlier urban days in New York and D.C., I was politically opposed to cars and largely made do with public transportation. When we moved from D.C. to N.C. and became suburban householders, I realized driving was going to be a part of my life, and I might as well enjoy it. So I embraced the change, and started to find pleasure in cars. I’ve enjoyed driving more and more, as I got nicer cars. Now, with my 911 S (Clara), I adore it. I love going out on country roads, adjusting the suspension to the “sport” setting, and feeling the road. I love the engine’s throaty growl, and its wild banshee cry of joy in acceleration. I love its agility as the road twists and turns, and I love the g forces.

At the same time, the massive power of the car demands respect and attention. It could quickly get out of control. This means there is an element of challenge. But that is part of what I like. So I’m not looking forward to robo cars. They’re surely coming, but I won’t give up my Clara till they pry her from my cold dead hands.