Last month, Google engineer Sebastian Thurn, the man behind Google’s now-famous-but-then-clandestine driverless cars project, spoke at the Technology Entertainment Design conference in Florida. Thurn, who lost his best friend to a car accident at age 18, has since devoted his life to improving driverless car technology. “I’m really looking forward to a time,” he said, “when generations after us look back at us and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars.”
As you might imagine, this sparked a bit of a rant on my part, so read at your own risk.
Thurn’s base argument is that human error causes most accidents, and that few are ever caused by machines. But I disagree. I think the computerized, automatic systems in cars are the very danger plaguing our roads. And no, I’m not against technology. I’m a professional blogger. But hear me out:
A cell phone, for example, is a machine. You can hold that phone while driving because you don’t need your right hand to shift. Your automatic transmission takes care of that. You can look down and text because if you start to drift, your lane drift alarms will cause you to look up at the road. And even if you don’t drift, straight line collisions can be prevented when your car’s radar system applies the brakes. All these systems are currently options in the Mercedes Benz E Class.
But what those machines will never have is creativity. It’s what makes the human beings such remarkable creatures. If a truck in front of me suddenly slows down, I can quickly change lanes and give the guy behind me more time to slow down. If the Red Wave of brake lights is fast approaching, I can cut it off by downshifting instead of hitting the brakes.
Now, in theory, a computer can be trained to do all of these things for us, but only after we’ve thought of them. And we usually think of them in the moment.
But that’s not the point, you say, because Thurn’s future is a world in which no cars make mistakes or suddenly have to stop. And theoretically, that would work. Barring the emergency vehicles whose (hopefully still human) drivers will have to charge through traffic, and ignoring for now the fact that computers seem to fail just as often as human brains, a perfectly mathematical system would be a functional system, in an extremely dull and dystopian sort of way.
What Google seems to be missing here is that such a system is already in place for people who can’t be bothered to creatively solve problems on the road: a highly automated, extremely reliable, clockwork solution.
Railroads. The Google plan would turn every highway into a railroad anyway. Why not save several hundred billion dollars and work on improving the crippled passenger rail system instead?
This keeps the roads clear of people who never really wanted to drive, anyway, and they’ll be able to save the 54 minutes a day they usually spend in traffic, their millions of gallons of gas, the troublesome experience of actually learning how to drive well, and their sanity.
And it will save ours, the people who love to drive, who consider (certain) cars works of art, who feel the same way about the very act of driving. Because in our eyes, many cars are driven by robots, anyway: the people who aren’t paying attention to the road (aided by the aforementioned systems), and end up clogging the passing lanes while polishing their fingernails.
Robots run best on rails.
What do you think? Does Mr. Thurn prophecy the future of motoring, or will we always be allowed to drive our cars, despite the danger?
Sebastian Thurn speaks at TED 2011:
Dodge Resistance Commercial:
Images courtesy of Google.