Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Smart Cars Too?


Last week’s post on self-parking cars is just the tip of a looming iceberg (think Titanic). Headed this way is a tsunami of proposals for self-driving cars. The forecast for this auto-utopia? Collision-free travel that’s faster, denser, and more efficient. Now, the complications of self-parking cars seem trivial.

The push for automated cars comes from many directions. Auto makers can charge more for more sophisticated cars. Californians hope freeways will move many more cars. Avoiding frequent stops and starts should conserve gasoline. Those are some of the promises. What is the reality?

Automated cars means two things. One is a nationwide network controlling a system of robotic cars and communicating roadways. The other is the cars controlled by that system but also responsive to the needs of its human cargo.

How to solve the interaction of those two sources of control? Obviously, humans overriding the automated system would be chaos. But how will they make the system do their bidding? Are you willing to bet your life (or at least your destination) on speech recognition software?

Whenever large complex systems control millions of interacting parts, errors can be catastrophic. Where is the human control at the top to limit the equivalent of a Three-Mile Island disaster? Will there be a national system of Car Traffic Controllers?

There are also problems at the bottom of this system. If the system fails to properly direct a car, we think it’s no big deal because the human will take over. Think again. In a population driven by automated cars, how good is the human backup?

There is also big opposition to this idea. In Who Owns The Future?, Jaron Lanier raises the specter of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters—“North America’s Most Powerful Union.” From airline pilots to zookeepers, truck drivers are just the tip of the Teamster’s iceberg.

Or will all those packages from Amazon deliver themselves? We are rushing headlong into a future painted by profiteers. Is it real or just a façade hiding unknown potholes and worse?. Do we really need this future or are we buying a basket of lemons?

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