Smarter Cars, Dumber People

There is no doubt we are living in the future. Even Dr. Emmett Brown would agree that we’ve come a long way, but there is still one small thing we never seemed to master, flying cars, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, who would really be able to afford flying car insurance? You see that is the thing about the future, by the time you reach a level of technology to make things possible; society and culture have changed to the point where those are no longer the things people want. So, if we can’t have flying cars, what is the future of our automobiles?

Autos Transform and Roll Out
The short answer is that our cars will become smarter, and there is a lot of new technology on the near horizon that will help with things like fuel efficiency and distracted driving. However, the long answer -and the far horizon- tends to be more interesting. As we talked about above, predicting the steady climb of technology is often easy, especially when compared to predicting the erratic child-drawn squiggly lines that make up the progress of culture and societal needs. In truth, we have the technology to make flying cars, but with things like fluctuating gas prices, frivolous lawsuits, the influence of big car companies, and the near-constant worry of having a Buick fall on your sun deck, suddenly flying cars no longer seem like a good idea. So what is it that people in today’s texting-while-driving, longer-working, shorter-attention-span-having world want from their cars?

Many experts agree that the wave of the future is not flying cars but self-driving cars. What some people are already calling “Autos,” a self-driving car that would be able to function like a robotic chauffeur combined with the intelligence of Siri. So, basically an Autobot, except without their advantage of being able to get up and walk away when the not-famous person in their driver seat tries putting awkward moves on the hot girl in the passenger seat. Seriously, that is like someone hooking-up in the back seat of your head. Regardless, companies like Google, Apple, and Uber are already testing self-driving cars. They already exist and Google has already driven them thousands of miles on California roadways. They are still not perfect, but in a world where most accidents are caused by human error -driver inattention, alcohol impairment, poor decision making, etc- Autos have a remarkable potential to save lives and time.

There are a lot of benefits to self-driving cars. Humans will have more time to spend working, reading, playing with their kids, or just sleeping. In fact the cars of the future could basically become large extensions of our smart phones, with wifi and state-of-the-art info and entertainment options. So, expect to one day pay for that extra data plan for your car, just like your phone. Yet, also think what this means for that hour commute you have each morning and night. Suddenly, that is an extra hour to sleep, read, do work, or play Angry Birds. Long family road trips become family board game time, or family movie nights as the Auto travels to the destination for you. There will be no more need to switch drivers on long road trips, or risk falling asleep during a marathon drives from New York to Miami, and once the entire road becomes full of self-driving vehicles even traffic could start to become a thing of the past.

According to Reuters, the US Commuter spends about 42 hours a year in traffic, and highway congestion costs us about $160 billion each year. Traffic -especially for working commuters- has been linked with increased depression, anxiety, anger, and a sense of social isolation. It also affects people’s sleep and blood pressure, but change is already happening. Last year, Tesla released an update for their S-model which allowed the cars to be switched into a self-driving mode, and many commuters have already begun adapting to this new and potentially life-changing technology. We are not decades away, but years away from what most experts see as a fully autonomous car, and perhaps less than twenty years away from them becoming commonplace, and that is good. Self-driving Autos can alleviate a lot of the factors that make driving such a hassle and could give humans more time to be… well human.

The New Model on the Lot
Now, let’s take it one giant robot step forward. GM just recently invested $500 million into a company called Lyft. It is a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but more than just being a good investment it shows how GM may be thinking ahead of the curve. Ride-sharing and the Uber model are starting to catch on all over the world and in many areas of business. Often comparable or cheaper than a taxi, Uber allows for quick and easy access to transportation all from the touch of few buttons on your phone. Yet, the ride-sharing giant is not done innovating.

GM’s investment into Lyft was not just about ride-sharing but self-driving. Uber is also investing heavily in self-driving cars, because they see the potential for synergy with their service. As cheap as rides currently are they can still get cheaper, especially when you cut out the human driver. Imagine using your smart phone to summon an Auto to pick you up, no matter where you are: the airport, the club, your weird uncle’s house, etc. Then with no human driver and GPS traffic navigation you reach your destination in record time, all for literal cents on the mile. Suddenly, taking an Uber is no longer about making awkward small talk with your driver but about sitting back and relaxing as your personal Bumblebee or Wheeljack or Optimus Prime -depending how much junk you’re hauling- takes you to wherever you want to go, around the block or around the country.

Now consider how much you pay for you car. There are regular expenses like car insurance, oil changes, and tire rotations, as well as other expenses: regular maintenance, car washes, that time you needed to clean the interior after your buddy had one too many tequila shots, not to mention gas fill-ups, the initial price of buying the car, and things like speeding tickets -which you got while racing home before your friend could tequila all over your leather seats. Thanks, Todd- Some estimates put the yearly expense of owning a mid-sized sedan between $8,000 and $12,000 a year. Ubering is still slightly more expensive annually -about $18,000- but that could change, and if it does we should not be surprised to see an attitude change toward car ownership. Many people living in big cities already do away with car ownership, especially since many cities are already moving away from cars centered designs. In fact, the car culture in America and the percentage of people who have a driver’s license has been steadily decreasing since the 80’s. With this new innovation we could start to see car-less families become the norm, even in places outside of major metropolitan areas. It is entirely possible that owning your own car -at least in urban and suburban areas- will come to be seen as an extravagant and unnecessary expense.

How It Goes Horribly Wrong
Unfortunately, every technology has its flaws and self-driving Ubering Autobots are no exception. We won’t lie, there is a small likelihood they could become sentient and seek our energon cubes, but it is probably more likely that we will just become dumber. One of the main concerns with self-driving cars is that it will be the final nail in the coffin for our sense of direction. Think about it. How often do you use your smart phone’s GPS to help you get where you are going, even if you already sort of know the way? Isn’t it just easier, especially if it helps you get around traffic or roadblocks? We have been losing our sense of direction ever since the days of MapQuest, but in the past ten years the tendency has increased dramatically. A 2008 study by the University of Tokyo found that people asked to reach a destination on foot drew less accurate maps when they were assisted by GPS than when they were not. If cars are suddenly doing all the navigation for us, how long will it be before we completely forget how to get anywhere, in much in the same way no can seem to remember anyone’s phone number anymore.

We also have to accept that this new industry will also mean job loss, and we’re not just talking about all those Uber drivers who will get replaced by smart cars, either. Remember, big business is often the first to adapt new technology and automation, especially if it means saving money. Suddenly, trucking companies, bus companies, delivery companies, maybe even your friendly neighborhood ice cream truck could soon be driven by heartless machines. The transportation industry employs almost 4 million people in this country. That is a lot of people who stand to lose their jobs outright, but that does not even include the number of construction drivers, forklift drivers, valets, parking attendants, crossing guards, NASCAR fans, and others that will be indirectly affected by a driver-less economy. If a smart Auto can do things cheaper, faster, and with less risk then how could humans even compete?

Unfortunately, putting Sideswipe in the driver’s seat also comes with other complications, including moral ones. This tends to be the argument that most people on the Internet often point to when talking about self-driving cars. If your Auto is driving along and suddenly a child runs out into the road to chase a ball, what will the computer do? Will it choose to kill the child and spare the passenger’s life, or crash into a tree to kill the passenger but spare the child? What if there is more than two people in the car? What if it isn’t a child but an old woman who has lived a good life with her six cats? What if the person in the road is your time-traveling grandfather? Does the car take all those factors into account? What is the computer’s priority in those situations? Do they protect the driver or the greatest number of people? Unfortunately, we have no answers yet.

What’s the Point?
Those kinds of questions are kind of the point of any thought experiment on future technology, like Autos. We often think of all the shiny new gadgets we can have but rarely stop to think about their cultural and societal impacts, which in turn will create new shiny gadgets. Technological advancement is not a straight line, but a pyramid, building higher off its own foundation. It also does not exist in a vacuum. Self-driving cars will create a new infrastructure, and vice-versa. New roads, new cities, new moral dilemmas, and new ways of living.

Autos are just a matter of time. Maybe not in five, ten, or twenty years, but they are coming and we will be faced with the new questions they present. That is why we need to consider them now. What will happen to our economy, our brain power, or our moral fortitude? According to a recent survey, even though many people are ready for self-driving cars more than 50% still have serious concerns about their safety, especially if there is a potential that your car could one day choose to save someone else’s life over your own. After all, in a world where your car could turn on you any minute in favor of a pedestrian, your transportation would probably begin to feel less like an Auto-bot and more like a Decepticon.

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