The Self-Driving Beer Truck Is Awesome, No Matter What the Whiners Say
Parsing the hand-wringing punditry around last week's big autonomous stunt.
A week ago, an advertisement for Budweiser popped up in my Twitter feed. But rather than dismiss it, I clicked on it as eagerly as I would on a tweet about “bong hits with Wonder Woman cosplayers.” It went:
“1876: Budweiser is founded.
1969: Man walks on moon.
2016: A beer truck drives itself.
Accompanying this very strange copy was a smooth promo video about the now-famous Otto autonomous truck run in Colorado last week, well chronicled everywhere, but most importantly here at The Drive. But that run was more than just an experiment or a stunt. Budweiser, the most NASCAR-hugging of companies, has now embraced autonomy. Autonomous driving isn’t just a future technology, or a fad, or a stunt. It’s a genuine corporate directive driven by a multi-billion dollar international agenda.
This led me to wonder whose interests I’m really serving when I boost the idea of autonomous driving. The U.S. Army has been doing demo runs of autonomous trucks up in Michigan. The King Of Beers has gone to bed with Uber. I don’t drink Budweiser. So which car side am I on?
Old political alignments don’t really match up anymore. There are some coal-rolling detractors on the right, but that’s really more a protest against electric cars than against self-driving ones, a largely separate issue. Most of the anti-autonomous stuff I’ve seen, on the other hand, comes from liberal intellectuals, who imagine dystopian scenarios at every turn.
Exhibit A is this piece of whingey concern-trolling from New York Magazine, where a guy who doesn’t drive spends several thousand words extolling the virtues of a Smokey And The Bandit America that doesn’t exist and never did. “You will never take a turn a little too hard, causing that little droopy feeling in your gut,” he writes. “You will never do doughnuts, never peel out, never gun your engine.”
Fair enough, but what about this: “Because driverless cars are programmed to never break (or even bend) traffic laws, they will never go more than ten miles over the speed limit, even when you’re rushing to the hospital and your daughter’s face is turning blue.” Yes, and if you went back in time and killed Baby Napoleon, history would have been different!
He juxtaposes the dangerous “freedoms” of car ownership with the Black Mirror nightmare of the autonomous future: “If I were asked to condense the whole of the coming decades into one mental picture, I might pick this soon-to-be familiar sight: a man in a motorcar, riding along an asphalt highway while staring blankly at a glowing screen.” That notion, that self-driving cars will ultimately accelerate the end of meaningful human contact, is the whole premise of this supremely weird essay, which posits that driverless cars will destroy the concept of horizontal space itself, much like elevators, that cursed invention that keeps us from the very human experience of climbing stairs, have eliminated our perception of verticality:
"The logistics of scheduling automated vehicles,” he writes, “will ensure that even more of our time becomes consciously programmed and structured, optimized for maximum productivity. With each advance, our surrounding environment will become increasingly hostile to serendipity and chance meetings, known sources of creative breakthroughs.”
Spoken like someone who doesn’t have to deal with Texas roads every day. Driving is not about serendipity. It is a smog-filled hellspace that brings out the worst in people. You’re lucky if you can survive a “chance meeting” on the “motorway.”
“Driverless cars posit a possible future without street life and without spaces for spontaneity,” he writes. But do they really? Modern street life is way too dominated by cars, and parking garages, and cars looking for parking garages. Getting hit by a truck certainly is “spontaneous,” but is it really something worthy of nostalgia?
The New York Magazine writer quotes J.G. Ballard, a standard pro-car go-to of the people-who-read set, delivering a notion that’s antiquated and quaint: “The car as we know it now is on the way out…To a large extent I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea—freedom.” But most people aren’t James Dean meeting his fate on Dead Man’s Curve, or Steve McQueen cruising the streets of San Francisco, or Ballard characters merrily balling at the scene of a wreck. For the masses, “freedom” means spending $200 to replace a windshield shattered by a stray rock, or yelling at an insurance company to get a bumper repaired, or attending the funeral of loved ones who were hit by a drag-racing souped-up Mustang on the way home from school—something that happened about 15 miles from my house this week. That’s a steep price to pay for liberty.
The big picture, that a world without drivers means a world without gory car-related deaths, gets lost in a sea of micro-concerns. In Automotive News last week, my friend and former boss Sharon Carty, compiled a list of minor spookies, including: “Do autonomous cars become a magnet for carjackers?”; “Won’t these vehicles end up being the best drug couriers?”; “How do these cars not end up being a hot spot for amorous teens?”; and “Will the driverless car become the 1970s New York subway car of the future, decorated by vandals, inside and out?”
Using the 1970s New York subway in a transportation discussion is like using the word “Nazi” in a political discussion. Once you invoke it, everything is invalid. Of course teenagers are going to fuck in autonomous cars! Of course people are going to use them to transport drugs! And yes, you will probably forget your passport or your cell phone on the coffee table when you’re taking an autonomous car to the airport. In other words, it will be just like life is now, except that you won’t have to risk dying in a horrible car crash, and you won’t have to pay for insurance.
At the moment, though, we’re still living through the last decade of the golden age of automotive “freedom.” So far, the only nightmare scenario is that robot trucks are delivering beer. I’d be happy to live in that dystopia.