I intend to buy a new car soon. My nine-year-old Saab can keep going for a while longer, but they don’t make Saabs anymore, the keys are falling to bits and the cost of buying and then programming a new key is disproportionate to the value of the car. The Saab I bought back in 2007 was equipped to run on both lead-free petrol and bio-ethanol – (once memorably described in the Guardian as a sort of ‘flammable muesli’) though the only petrol station I knew that supplied bio-ethanol soon dropped that option, and in any case early on there were serious questions raised about the ethics and sustainability of the product which continue today.
It’s worth considering the failure of the bio-ethanol option in the UK as those who subscribe to a technologically determined view of the future now seem to be out to persuade us that we will all be driven around in self-driving cars in the not-too-distant future. At a recent discussion at Cardiff’s Innovation Point on Educational Technology, the audience was asked if they expected to be riding in a self-driving car within ten years, five years, two years, or never. I believe I was the only person to opt for ‘never.’ I’ll come back to why I think that in due course.
A good summary of what the technological determinists claim was given by Simon Kuper in Saturday’s FT (my comments in brackets). Simon’s a good writer but this time round I found myself saying ‘I don’t agree with his take on this’:
- driverless cars could allow cities to cut vehicle numbers by about 90% (fanciful weasel word ‘could’)
- they will reduce accidents by around 90% (not convinced)
- pollution and carbon emissions will drop, because the cars will be electric (begs a lot of questions on the production of that electricity)
- ‘the old, the disabled and teenagers will suddenly gain mobility’ (my 86 year-old mother could drive now thanks, when she gets her new hip sorted, plenty of teenagers and disabled people do now)
- people will save fortunes by ditching their cars (we’ll see)
- driverless cars won’t need to park because ‘the driverless car is the perfect cheap taxi – it can drop you at work, then go off to collect somebody else’ (when does it recharge?)
- cities will charge you for owning your own car – ‘if you think personal cars will survive as status symbols, remember that horses were once status symbols’ (but TV didn’t kill cinema, Khan Academy hasn’t killed schooling. Remember, back in 2000 Michael Lewis forecast that TiVO meant the end of commercial television as we know it. ITV has had a great run)
- congestion will drop ‘as driverless cars can drive in dense packs, won’t get lost and won’t have to circle around looking for parking’ (guess we’ll have lots of wifi recharging then somehow – how?)
- The police won’t racially discriminate by pulling over black drivers – or indeed any drivers (racial discrimination isn’t stopped by autonomous cars)
- The tedium of commutes will disappear as you can use your driving time for other things. (commutes are tedious on trains, buses and tubes – why would driverless cars be different?)
Kuper also warns of job decimation in the automobile and associated industries from car manufacturers to taxi drivers to insurance companies. He acknowledges that ‘only 6 per cent of the biggest US cities’ (not sure what that 6% actually represents) have factored driverless cars into their long-term planning though industry experts expect driverless cars to be on our roads by 2020. (wait till there’s insurance against failure of autonomous cars)
Meanwhile, in the Harvard Business Review this month, the CEO of Nissan and Renault, Carlos Ghosn, sets out how these companies are planning for drivers to be able to choose whether to drive or not and explains why he isn’t scared of Tesla, Apple or Google parking their vehicles on his lawn. He says ‘I don’t hear anyone say “I love driving in traffic jams” or even on highways with miles and miles of road ahead’.
Well, personally, I do enjoy driving on highways with miles and miles of road ahead, particularly on French Autoroutes, though not so much on the A470. Has Ghosn never heard of Route 66 (https://roadtripusa.com/route-66/ ) and the romance that thousands if not millions have attached to that over the years? The song itself has been covered by Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and Natalie Cole.
But it’s not the determinists’ rejection of the human factor that drives my scepticism of driverless enthusiasm. Nor is it the aesthetic objection that driverless cars are ugly, outlined by Tyler Brule. After all, I guess if Apple gets involved, design will be a key factor . Nor the safety issues resulting from potential DDoS attacks on the Internet of Things with their dystopian nightmares of self-attacking cars (very Maximum Overdrive ) or state-sponsored Russian hackers running amok although these are real, terrifying and unresolved issues. Nor that, according to the FT, aggressive drivers see autonomous cars as easy prey. I expect there’s a video game for that. Presumably, being more of a luxury product, cars will have better security than cheap cameras, but little is ultimately impregnable.
Nor am I hostile to technological developments. I love my iPhone, iPad, Macbook Pro and digital technology generally. Though I realized as soon as I started this article that I would sound to some like the DCMS civil servant whom Damian Green once described to me in the mid-nineties (when he was working in John Major’s Policy Unit and I was working for the BBC), as someone who was ‘not quite convinced that television would catch on’.
I don’t doubt the innovation that is going on at Tesla, which announced last week that it has installed the hardware – a camera, ultrasonic and radar package – in its cars in preparation for when the software becomes available, which it will then download to you. Build and they will come? Maybe. After all, with an alleged $4.5 billion in government subsidies you’d hope that was true. Tesla’s pitch is clear:
Self-driving vehicles will play a crucial role in improving transportation safety and accelerating the world’s transition to a sustainable future. Full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver, lower the financial cost of transportation for those who own a car and provide low-cost on-demand mobility for those who do not.
But as Ben Evans points out (hat-tip Dave Jones for the reference) :
Very few people in the field think that autonomy will be possible without a LIDAR sensor any time soon (LIDAR makes building a 3D model of your surroundings much easier), and very few think it will be possible even with LIDAR within 5 years. Many think 10 years (or longer) is more realistic. [LIDAR = Light- detection and ranging]
In the States, outline Federal policy on driverless cars has now been produced. You can watch a video on that here:
My objection to all this driverless car-cophony is that, as ever, it is putting the product before the people: the question shouldn’t be, how do we adapt cities to driverless cars, it should be, how do we ensure cities are liveable spaces and design transportation systems that help people live healthy, sustainable lives in those cities? To take a European city which has probably done more than most to achieve this goal, Copenhagen, where an estimated 40% commute to work by bike, it has been the investment in high-quality public transport systems – including driver-less light metro, by the way, and cycle-friendly routes – which matters.
That doesn’t mean Copenhagen isn’t thinking about the future of transport in its city: it’s thinking smartly about how to capture and use data, including mobile phone data, to continue its development as a sustainable and green city, with its intelligent traffic lights giving priority to buses and bicycles – not cars, driverless or otherwise. Focusing on cars, autonomous or not, will give you car-focused not people-focused solutions. Let’s focus on the human space, and develop the technology to make it more human, not focus on the technology as the pivot. Back in Wales, this guy has some good ideas too.
Back in the 1980s, the Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams warned against the notion of ‘technological determinism’:
The basic assumption of technological determinism is that a new technology – a printing press or a communications satellite – ‘emerges’ from technical study and experiment. It then changes the society or sector into which it has emerged. ‘We’ adapt to it because it is the new modern way.[i]
In fact, argues Williams, there is always a social context for the development of a technology, and how technologies advance depends on the material and corporate interests of those who have developed the technologies. As John Gray subsequently argued, ‘new technologies never create new societies….they simply change the terms in which social and political conflicts are played out.’ When it comes to decisions on regulatory issues, corporations seek to co-opt regulators and politicians into a belief that the technological needs prescribe certain outcomes, or as Des Freedman puts it:
That there are no alternative paths and that resistance is futile because technological development is pre-determined. Technological determinism, therefore, is a discursive means of highlighting novelty and paving the way for structural changes that are seen to be necessary.[ii]
Or back to Tylor Brule again:
There’s also something rather depressing about all the hoo-ha surrounding driverless vehicles and the general demonisation of four wheels under private ownership. For starters, a car that does everything in automated fashion for the owner is yet another nail in the coffin for common sense, aiding and abetting in the abdication of responsibility for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians (or bringing a spike in lawsuits).
Second, it renders most of the taglines of the established carmakers completely redundant as they cower from lobbyists and the tech sector alike. And third, it’s eradicating all the sense of thrill and risk that makes it exciting to be human.
So, no, I don’t plan to be riding around in a driver-less car. Aside from my bike, which I’ve been pleased to ride into the university on many occasions since I started in September, I want a small, fuel-efficient car with great Bluetooth and a fabulous sound-system. Any recommendations?
[i] Raymond Williams, Towards 2000, 1985, p 129.
[ii] John Gray, ‘The sad side of cyberspace’, Guardian, 10 April 1995; Des Freedman, ‘A ‘Technological Idiot’? Raymond Williams and Communications Technology’, Information, Communication and Society, 5:3, 2002, p432