Autonomous Cars? We Want Autonomy Cars
Get in a Jeep with some jerrycans and you’ve got more autonomy than most humans ever born.
Three of us in a Brock Yates Edition 1985 Audi 4000 that was terrible new and worse now. A single crack runs diagonally across the windshield like frozen lighting. It's ninety degrees outside, one hundred inside. The A/C is broken. Windows up, for aerodynamics. And noise. I'm not driving, but I wish I was, if only to get my mind off the misery. The smell of gas so sweet it shoots up my nostrils with greased hooks, begging me to snort until I pass out. And the stench. It's not just me. It's them. And the "re-sealable" beef jerky bags that don't quite re-seal. And the mess. My hand looks like I pulled it out of an unflushed toilet instead of the hot can of chocolate-covered raisins. The u-shaped "Deluxe" neck pillow I bought at JFK. Too soft for my unhappy neck. Too rough for my angry skin.
There's only one thing crazier than Cannonballing cross-country fast, and that's doing it slowly. We've been at it for twenty hours.
Because no one wants autonomous cars. We want autonomy cars.
Autonomy. As in human autonomy, which is the only autonomy that matters. What does autonomy mean? Self-sufficiency. Independence. Choice. Autonomy = freedom. The freedom to go anywhere, or nowhere at all, or to speed across the country for no damn good reason.
Does anyone really want a car that's autonomous, by the strictest definition? Of course not. The last thing anyone wants are cars that can think for themselves and roam freely. Or worse, we get lazy SkyNet, on wheels. They might just inch around, trying to avoid contact with those unpredictable humans. Or maybe they wouldn't move at all. Why would they let those dirty humans inside? The wear and tear. The smell. A world full of truly autonomous cars would bring human civilization to a halt.
If truly autonomous cars are our worst enemy, autonomy cars are our friends.
You already know what an autonomy car does. It automates repetitive and difficult tasks, like walking thirty miles a day. Autonomy cars are amazing, and they are already here. You probably already have one. If not, autonomy is waiting for you at any car dealership. It's been there for more than a hundred years. Autonomy cars range from semi-autonomy (all road cars) to full autonomy (Jeeps and off-road vehicles). Some offer more autonomy than others, but even the worst semi-autonomy car will go anywhere on earth there's a road in moderate condition. Get in a prepped Jeep with some jerrycans and you've got more autonomy than most of the humans ever born.
Autonomy? Freedom? Equality? Before the advent of the privately owned car, the majority of humans worked within a few miles of home, trapped in invisible cages. Horses? Trains? Ships? Fantasy. Luxury. The human-driven car has been the most democratizing technology since the printing press.
Unfortunately, the human-driven car is among the most dangerous—but not in the way we've been taught to think.
Yes, it is a crime that there are approximately 40,000 car-related deaths a year in the United States. A deeper crime is that those 40,000 deaths are preventable. But the biggest crime? That these deaths are blamed on cars. The problem isn't the cars. It's us. It's our lack of respect for technology. It's a lack of respect for the freedom cars grant us. It's our lack of respect for each other. It's the rampant dehumanization of others in a world where people think safety is something we can buy rather than the sum of choices we make. Every time a crash is called an accident? Dehumanization. Every time a drunk driver gets their license back? Dehumanization. Every time a driver "lost control" before impact?
There is no such thing as losing control of a car. Short of a defective tire blowout, no car ever sold will do anything a driver didn't allow it to. Every car ever sold is an extension of human will.
Car control? You have it, or you never had it.
Unfortunately, human autonomy — granted the power to command machines, without proper training, without respect — empowers us at the expense of others.
Those 40,000 deaths aren't the price of freedom. They're the price of laziness — moral, personal and political. That laziness begets the seemingly irrefutable moral power behind arguing for the removal of steering wheels and the elimination of private car ownership. Laziness fertilizes the belief that automation itself is a worthy goal, and that there is a zero-sum relationship between automation and human input. In that world, full automation is perfection, and human input can and should be sacrificed for the greater good, trapped inside a cage of safety.
All the words, phrases, sound bites, press releases, interviews, clickbait and propaganda around self-driving cars come from this point of view. Humans fallible; automation infallible.
What is the best way to sell something? Tell people they cannot learn. That they can never do better. That they should give up. That they will be saved, for the low, low price of X.
But autonomous cars are never coming. Automated cars? Yes, but we face decades of geotonomy: cars that can drive more safely than humans, within certain conditions, behind geofences. The fences will start tight. If you don't know how to drive, if the self-driving lobby has its way, you will be a prisoner to the best geotonomous car you can hail, limited to the fleet fence. Inside the fence, you will be free to live, safely, at the expense of true autonomy. No matter how far the fences expand, they can never expand as far or as fast as human imagination or desire.
That's why geotonomous cars compel no lust. That they will be safer is a given. They have to be or no one will get in. Safety can't be a marketing goal. "Safety" has to be the floor. Geotonomy = convenience, and there's nothing less sexy than convenience, which is why autonomy cars will sell forever. The world outside the fence will always beckon, and danger with it.
How much danger? That depends on us.
The future doesn't have to be Wall-E or chaos. There is a third path. The key is recognizing that technology can be a means or an end. That Toyota and others are developing technology that augments human will rather than replaces human control. That freedom and safety can co-exist if we are open to technologies that serve rather than enslave us. That the future will be determined not by what others invest in, but by what we are willing to pay for. Fortunes have been lost betting against human nature. The perfect car of the future, the one I dream about, isn't one without a steering wheel. It's a car that can drive itself when I want it to, that won't let me crash on public roads when I take the wheel, and whose capabilities are safely unlocked as my skills improve.
"Why," I asked my unflappable co-driver Arne Toman, a man I barely knew 20 hours ago, "do we do this?"
"The glory," he says.
"But the misery—"
"Exactly," says my new favorite person.
I look at my dirty hands. I mute my ex-girlfriend's call. Cannonball legend Ed Bolian is snoring behind me. I'm hungry. I have to go to the bathroom. But we can't stop. And all I can think about is how, someday, I will hack a geotonomous car to leave the New York fence and take me to California. As quickly as possible. And it will be safer than any Cannonball attempt has been. It makes no sense. But it must be done.
Why? Because no one has ever done it before. And once I get back home, nothing will make me happier than to take a geotonomous taxi home from the airport, because I'll be too tired to drive.
Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large at The Drive. He is also the founder of Geotegic Consulting and the Human Driving Association, host of The Autonocast, and author of The Driver. He has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.