Friday, August 19, 2016

Uber-Future: Bravely Driverless?

Driverless cars.

I still don't think they're really gonna happen.  At least, not to the extent enthusiastic proponents of the concept hope it will.

But with Uber's announcement yesterday that the popular ride service will begin deploying self-driving cars within the next few weeks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a driverless future certainly seems more possible than ever before.*

Lately, automobile manufacturers have been steadily increasing their funding and manpower for driverless technologies.  Ride service companies like Uber and Lyft have been partnering with other technology companies to develop not only new systems for deploying driverless cars, but also making conventional car ownership obsolete.

Yes, you read me correctly.  Car ownership could become reserved for a few fleet companies.  In the brave new world envisioned by our techno-geeks, people won't own cars; we'll simply summon up a vehicular pod electronically, ride it to our destination, and then repeat the process when we're ready to take another trip.  In the meantime, the pod we've just used will be electronically dispatched to somebody else, over and over again, throughout the day.

In the fullness of such a scenario, car garages across suburbia will become obsolete as well; cars won't be parked at our homes overnight, unless we specifically arrange it with the fleet services company that will actually own the vehicular pod.  Of course, many suburban garages have already become de-facto storage areas anyway, so maybe the impact of this change will be minimal.

Then there's the aspect of aesthetics.  For example, the constant hiring-out of these vehicular pods means that the condition of the car when it arrives could be suspect.  When was the car last cleaned?  What did your car's last riders do inside of it?  If you're wanting to take a client or a boss out for lunch, for example, will you be embarrassed if the last rider was a messy person who left their garbage in it?  After a while, driverless cars will, in essence, become an extension of mass transit, and if you're familiar with city buses and subways, you know how pleasant those can be.

By that point in time, of course, our society will be stuck with driverless cars, and we'll have to make do with them.  The truly optimistic rationalize that fleet service companies would have to strive for customer satisfaction to stay in business, as in any capitalistic enterprise.  But have you hailed a New York City cab lately?  When the entire industry has low standards, it's hard to make aesthetics like cleanliness a profit motive.

After all, the lowest common denominator is what's driving the driverless car theory.  The lowest common denominator being minimal risk of traffic fatalities, since (at least in theory) technology can operate a motor vehicle more safely than a human can.  The lowest common denominator also, ostensibly, involves lower costs for consumers, since hiring a vehicular pod on an as-needed basis is supposed to be cheaper in the long run than today's conventional ownership and leasing options.

Perhaps all this really is true.  But if it is, that truth likely is mostly relevant in a perfect world.  It would be a perfect world in which riders - particularly people who don't own a vehicle, and aren't compelled to take responsibility for what it looks/smells like when they exit it - actually do leave it in a good condition for the next riders.  It would be a perfect world in which technology doesn't have glitches that won't leave a vehicular pod stranded in a part of town you didn't want to go through in the first place, but was the straightest route calculated by the on-board computer to your destination.  It would be a perfect world in which you didn't change your mind - or learn about an unavoidable change in your schedule - during your ride, and have to figure out how to get your vehicular pod to now transport you to a completely different part of town.

Of course, all of this is non-constructive nay-saying, isn't it?  I need to be positive and look at the bright side.  Technology is our future, it is our savior, it will save us from drudgery and all of the tasks we don't want to do. 

Yet, slowly but surely, technology is actually eliminating jobs that people used to count on to earn a living.  Those jobs may have been tedious, dangerous, undesirable, boring, low-skill, and poorly-paid, but they were jobs that somebody did because they needed the money.  Jobs like the telephone operator and receptionist.  Elevator engineer.  Even housekeeper - now that vacuums are automated, at least.

Granted, a lot of obsolete jobs are obsolete because most people got tired of waiting on other people to do them.  And even when it comes to driving a car, a lot of us don't particularly enjoy the literal task of driving anymore.  There's too much traffic, too many distractions, and other drivers are simply too rude and incompetent, right?  Plus, at least with rush-hour driving, you get the same people going the same direction the same way at the same time, five days a week.  Surely that could be simplified, right?

Then, too, building contractors and owners need to budget huge amounts of money for parking lots and garages for employees and customers.  With the proliferation of driverless cars, those parking areas could be re-developed into more profitable real estate.  Even back in the Dark Ages, when I was in architecture school, I remember hearing lectures on designing parking garages to be cheaply re-purposed when driverless cars take over.

Indeed, this has been in the planning stages for years.  I suspect that even in public schools, the mantra of going driverless has been ingrained in succeeding generations of kids to the point where today, cars hold far less fascination for young people than they used to.  When I was a kid, it seemed that almost all the boys and a lot of the girls fantasized about the type of vehicle they wanted.  Car manufacturers advertised performance, and sports cars like the Trans Am, Camaro, Mustang, and GTO were exceedingly popular.

Yet today, none of my nephews nor my niece really are excited about vehicles.  Neither are my next-door neighbor's kids.  Not that these kids represent the sum total of how today's youth view cars, but even current car-buying data seems to corroborate the lackluster interest among modern young people towards car ownership.  Cars are widely perceived as a necessary evil, a mere tool; not a source of independence, pride, or self-identity.

Sports cars are no longer popular.  It's all about luxury, or utility.  Coincidence?  Or is it that with vehicular pods, sports performance is irrelevant, since a computer will be plotting your every move in conjunction with the computers in other vehicular pods?  Luxury and utility will still matter, but only because they can exist apart from nasty, ecologically-unfriendly evils like speed and performance.

I've been surprised to read automotive journalists who've made their living - up until now, anyway - raving about how well vehicles perform.  A lot of them are embracing driverless technology like it's merely an iPhone upgrade or a bigger digital TV.  But this is a big change, folks.  And it will begin with performance - a lot less performance.  With vehicular pods and driverless technology, performance will be tuned-down to whatever is necessary to plod along a freeway at posted speeds.  Safety will be excruciating.  But even then, listen to the most excited technology gurus, and they'll tell you that we won't need to build many more freeways, since traffic congestion would be better managed with driverless cars.  The technology would slow you down and make you wait, or putter along at two miles per hour, whether you want to or not.

Hey, that's basically what a traffic accident or gridlock does now anyway, right?  What difference does it make whether it's rush-hour traffic or a computer dictating how long your commute takes?  Either way, how many drivers are actually "in control" anymore? 

Ahh... and now we hit upon the true purpose behind driverless cars, don't we?  It's not about safety and economy as much as it is control, isn't it?  Listen to the techno-geeks long enough, and eventually, you'll hear them say something about needing to change America's driving habits and conforming us into a more ecologically-friendly pattern of conservation and civic conformity.  And driverless cars would be a good way of better-controlling our society, since cars currently dominate our culture so strongly.

Who'd have thought Uber was related to Big Brother?

Hey, maybe removing the personal responsibility of car ownership would make life less stressful for us.  Maybe having the chance to sit back, with an overpriced designer caffeinated beverage, while your automated vehicular pod plods through your commute will make your workday that much more enjoyable.  That is, of course, if you still have a job, after all of this technology keeps rolling out.

Because after a while, technology isn't just about making life better, but also - often concurrently - taking livelihoods away, isn't it?  At some point, isn't technology's elimination of jobs going to catch up with us?  How many workers today are being successfully transitioned from basic labor to high-skill Silicon Valley professions?  And how quickly will automation soon transform the tech landscape, as lower-level support jobs are transitioned to computers and algorithms?

Critics have claimed for a couple of decades that our incessant drive for technological innovation could actually economically impoverish our society to the point where hardly anybody will be able to afford all of the technology we're creating for ourselves.  It's the difference between wisdom and intelligence - and not artificial intelligence!  We should use wisdom to decide what technologies will actually benefit our society long-term and broadly-viewed, not simply developing technology because we have the intelligence (and venture capital) to create it.

So, is that what we're doing with driverless technology?

Meanwhile, ready or not, this particular concept will soon throttle-up for Uber.  But even then, Pennsylvania state law requires that a motorized vehicle be manned by a humanoid!  So each "driverless" Uber car will have somebody slouched, stand-by, at the controls, which for a while at least, will void any cost-savings aspect of the project.

Yet state laws are only the beginning of our society's bureaucratic red tape when it comes to fully unleashing driverless technology across America.  There are insurance regulations, liability concerns, and local municipal traffic laws to be considered.  Privacy rights are also at play, since virtually every move a driverless car takes will be well-documented by each vehicle's technology.  And, thanks to America's well-established penchant for individuality and independence, there likely will be many taxpayers and voters who don't want to adopt all of the new protocols and behavior patterns that driverless technology will demand from us.

Proponents of this brave new world will scoff that we simply don't like change.

But that won't be entirely true.  Most of us will gladly accept change... that's for the better!  At this point, however, driverless technology seems nicer in theory than in reality.

Even as its reality creeps ever closer sometime soon in Pittsburgh.

*Update Thursday, August 25, 2016:  Sorry, Pittsburgh:  Singapore beat you to it.  Driverless taxis made their debut there today.

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