Despite all the potential risks of driverless cars and the uncertainty of actually realizing their benefits, totally absent from most discussions of this technology is the possibility of rejecting it. On the Atlantic Cities blog, for instance, Robin Chase recently wondered aloud whether a future with self-driving cars will be either heaven or hell. Although it is certainly refreshing that she eschews the techno-idealism and hype that too often pervades writing about technology, she nonetheless never pauses to consider if they really must be “the future.” Other writing on the subject is much less nuanced than even what Chase offers. A writer on the Freakanomics blog breathlessly describes driverless technology as a “miracle innovation” and a “pending revolution.” The implication is clear: Driverless cars are destined to arrive at your doorstep. Why is it that otherwise intelligent people seem to act as if autopiloted automobiles were themselves in the driver’s seat, doing much of the steering of technological development for humanity?
The tendency to approach the development of driverless cars fatalistically reflects the mistaken belief that technology mostly evolves according to its own internal logic: i.e., that technology writ large progresses autonomously. Within this understanding of technology, humanity’s role, at best, is simply to adapt and address the negative consequences when they come but not attempt to consciously steer or limit technological innovation. The premise of autonomous technology, however, is undermined by the social scientific observation of how technologies actually get made. Which technologies become widespread is as much sociopolitical as technical. The dominance of driving in the United States, for instance, has more to do with the stifling municipal regulation on and crushing debts held by early 20th century transit companies, the Great Depression, the National Highway Act and the schemes of large corporations like GM and Standard Oil to eliminate streetcars than the purported technical desirability of the automobile.
Indeed, driverless cars can only become “the future” if regulations allow them on city streets and state highways. Citizens could collectively choose to forgo them. The cars themselves will not lobby legislatures to allow them on the road; only the companies standing to profit from them will. How such simple observations are missed by most people is a reflection of the entrenchment of the idea of autonomous technology in their thinking. Certain technologies only seem fated to dominate technological civilization because most people are relegated to the back seat on the road to “progress,” rarely being allowed to have much say concerning where they are going and how to get there. Whether or not citizens’ lives are upended or otherwise negatively affected by any technological innovation is treated as mainly a matter for engineers, businesses and bureaucrats to decide. The rest of us are just along for the ride.
A people-driven, rather than technology or elite-driven, approach to the driverless cars would entail implementing something like what Edward Woodhouse has called the “Intelligent Trial and Error” steering of technology. An intelligent trial and error approach recognizes that, given the complexity and uncertainty surrounding any innovation, promises are often overstated and significant harms overlooked. No one really knows for sure what the future holds. For instance, automating driving might fail to deliver on promised decreases in vehicles on the road and miles driven if it contributes to accelerating sprawl and its lower costs leads to more frequent and frivolous trips and deliveries.
The first step to the intelligent steering of driverless car technology would be to involve those who might be negatively affected. Thus far, most of the decision making power lies with less-than-representative political elites and large tech firms, the latter obviously standing to benefit a great deal if and when they get the go ahead. There are several segments of the population likely to be left in the ditch in the process of delivering others to “the future.” Drastically lowering the price of automobile travel will undermine the efforts of those who desire to live in more walkable and dense neighborhoods. Automating driving will likely cause the massive unemployment of truck and cab drivers. Current approaches to (poorly) governing technological development are poised to render these groups victims of “progress” rather than participants in it. Including them could open up previously unimagined possibilities, like moving forward with driverless cars only if financial and regulatory support could be suitably guaranteed for redensifying urban areas and the retraining, social welfare and eventual placement in livable wage jobs for the workers made obsolete.
Taking the sensible initial precaution of gradually scaling-up developments is another component of intelligent trial and error. For self-driving cars, this would mostly entail more extensive testing than is currently being pursued. The experiences of a few dozen test vehicles in Nevada or California hardly provide any inkling of the potential long-term consequences. Actually having adequate knowledge before proceeding with autonomous automobiles would likely require a larger-scale implementation of them within a limited region for a period of five years if not more than a decade. During this period, this area would need to be monitored by a wide range of appropriate experts, not just tech firms with obvious conflicts of interest. Do these cars promote hypersuburbanization? Are they actually safer, or do aggregations of thousands of programmed cars produce emergent crashes similar to those created by high-frequency trading algorithms? Are vehicle miles really substantially affected? Are citizens any happier or noticeably better off, or do driverless commutes just amount to more unpaid telework hours and more time spent improving one’s Candy Crush score? Doing this kind of testing for autopiloted automobiles would be simply extending the model of the FDA, which Americans already trust to ensure that their drugs cure rather than kill them, to technologies with the potential for equally tragic consequences.
If and only if driverless cars were to pass these initial hurdles, a sane technological civilization would then implement them in ways that were flexible and fairly easy to reverse. Mainly this would entail not repeating the early 20th century American mistake of dismantling mass transit alternatives or prohibiting walking and biking through autocentric design. The recent spikes in unconventional fossil fuel production aside, resource depletion and climate change are likely to eventually render autopiloted automobiles an irrational mode of transportation. They depend on the ability to shoot expensive communication satellites into space and maintain a stable electrical grid, both things that growing energy scarcity would make more difficult. If such a future came to pass self-driving cars would end up being the 21st century equivalent of the abandoned roadside statues of Easter Island: A testament to the follies of unsustainable notions of progress. Any intelligent implementation of driverless cars would not leave future citizens with the task of having to wholly dismantle or desert cities built around the assumption of forever having automobiles, much less self-driving ones.
There, of course, are many more details to work out. Regardless, despite any inconveniences that an intelligent trial and error process would entail, it would beat what currently passes for technology assessment: Talking heads attempting to predict all the possible promises and perils of a technology while it is increasingly developed and deployed with only the most minimal of critical oversight. There is no reason to believe that the future of technological civilization was irrevocably determined once Google engineers started placing self-driving automobiles on Nevada roads. Doing otherwise would merely require putting the broader public back into the driver’s seat in steering technological development.