Driverless Cars

As a profession we have a consistent interest in the safety of travelers.  We also have a responsibility to serve people.  As automobiles become more capable of assuming driving tasks, there is a temptation to take the human out of the picture.  We have been reminded that human error accounts for a large proportion of traffic crashes.  However, we need to balance safety concerns with our obligation to serve people and to have regard for their freedom to make choices.  Traffic engineering requires a knowledge and appreciation of human behavior.  It makes our branch of engineering less predictable but more interesting.  Shown below is a portion of an article by Charles C. W. Cooke on autonomous vehicles titled “The Open Road”.   It provides some food for thought as we move to take the driving task away from the humans.

“……..For a century the automobile has been the bastion of liberty, freeing up almost everybody from the tyranny of other people’s schedules. Trains, planes, and even taxis are run on their owners’ clocks. I cannot tell Amtrak to pick me up at 9; Delta won’t stop in Fayetteville if I ask nicely; yellow taxis have a habit of disappearing in the rain. But the car – oh, the car. The car is mine. I can get in my car when I want and get out when I want. I can oversleep or under sleep, and still it sits there waiting, as might a Labrador or a loyal slipper. My car has no luggage restrictions, and I know exactly what it’ll fit in my car. I may play what I want on the radio. And, best of all, I may choose the other passengers.

Crucially, I need not special permission to drive my car – at least beyond a basic license and a plate screwed into the back. At my choosing, I can go around the block, or I can go to California. Nobody cares. There are no tickets, no inspectors, no medallions to subsidize. If I want I can use a satellite or a map to help me find my way, or recruit my smartphone to the cause of cutting traffic. But I don’t have to. In fact, I don’t have to have a clue where I am going, or a clue when I will get there, or to remember where I have been. I can get happily, gloriously, deliriously lost – a weekender shuffling nowhere. My car, bless it, has no logbook, and no timetable. It is a steel extension of my feet. Will it remain these things if I am no longer allowed to drive it?

Any network of self-driving cars would, by definition, necessitate total and unceasing tacking of their occupants. I may know how to get to the local liquor store without a map, but my car most certainly does not. To make it there in a driverless model, I’d first have to tell it where I was going, and then it have to ask the Internet, and the satellites, and, probably, my credit card. To the existing framework we would thus be adding a planet-wrapping exoskeleton with a perfect digital memory. The car, far from serving as a liberator would become a telescreen on wheels – an FBI approved bug, to be slipped beneath the chassis in plain sight of the surveilled. At a stroke, my autonomy would be gone. Without permission from the Web, I would be lost in space. A mere server glitch could render me immobile. The government, should it choose, cold stop me dead in my tracks. Yet again, I would be handing over my self-reliance to the government and to the corporations, and asking plaintively, “Please, sir, may I move?”

………So, it is here. In truth, coming debate over driving is not about driving at all, but about movement, autonomy, and reliance on one’s self. Which is to say that the root question is whether a free people are to be permitted to move themselves around without needing somebody else to agree with the transaction, or whether the government may interpose itself.”

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