The self-driving car is a thing of sci-fi legend: we’ve wanted them ever since KITT ferried Hasselhoff through the mean streets of L.A. in Knight Rider. We’re still waiting on the flying cars we were promised (although Uber Air is supposedly only two years away), but driverless cars are getting close to becoming a semi-affordable reality. I do not like driving and rely on public transport, Uber and taxis to get around. A car that drives itself would be a dream for me. But there’s a cost to pushing this technology so hard, so fast. By the end of 2019, Tesla aims to release automated cars that can handle all aspects of driving without driver input beyond starting the car and choosing a destination. Its Autopilot program has been available for years, with the most recent iteration, 2.5, released last August. It features adaptive cruise control and self-parking, can centre you in a lane, and is being touted as an important stepping-stone to full automation.
But while Tesla leads the pack in commercially viable vehicles, it’s also an enormous company, one that has run into many of the issues that enormous companies tend to suffer from. There are reports of harassment within Tesla factories, of employees who are overworked and underpaid and upper management that doesn’t give a damn. Elon Musk is a technocrat whose billions have come at the expense of his workers’ well-being. Plans were recently announced to sever ties with any contractors at the company who cannot find a full-time employee to vouch for them, and reports from inside its factories suggest that conditions are horribly unsafe.
Then there’s Uber. We all have that friend who (rightfully) points out that Uber, despite being extremely convenient, is a company that exploits its drivers in myriad ways. Uber’s solution seems to be to cut the drivers out entirely: it’s also focusing on automated cars, even as it haemorrhages money. To compound the ridesharing company’s problems, one of Uber’s self-driving cars has already killed someone during its testing phase. Elaine Herzberg of Tempe, Arizona, was struck and killed when the car’s sensors glitched. The car technically spotted her, but it was chalked up as a ‘false positive’ reading. Reports suggest that Uber had recently cut back on precautionary measures.
Other companies are currently trialling self-driving cars and services, including Ford, Waymo and Drive.ai, and there’s a definite sense that each is in a hurry to be the first mover and gain a competitive advantage in the market. Competition means there might not be a monopoly, which will be good in the long run, but early adopters have reason to be concerned.
The end-game here could be wonderful. When this technology really takes off, we should see fewer accidents, safer travels, and faster-flowing traffic. Daily commutes will be much less stressful. But will the technology be secure and safe from hackers? Will we be liable if our car is involved in an accident? Will we be legally required to update our cars frequently, and will the first wave of consumer technology be safe enough? Will people move away from public transport, and what will the impact be on the environment? What impacts will this have on jobs in the transportation sector?
In science-fiction, like Issac Asimov’s Sally (1953), technologies like self-driving cars inevitably turn on humans. It’s a bit silly, but the moral of most of our science-fiction seems to suggest that technology is not our friend. But perhaps our concern should not be that artificial intelligence will evolve beyond what we can control, rather that the companies leading technological innovation are not necessarily concerned with the potential downsides and dangers of the road ahead.