The self-drive car sparks further thoughts about the way we connect with the physical world

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: ScottSchrantz

When I first saw that Google had obtained a license for its self-driving car in the state of Nevada I assumed that the license it had been issued was a driver's license. It's disappointing to find out that what they meant was that the car had been issued with license plates so it can operate on public roads. Bah: all operational cars have license plates, but none have driver's licenses. Yet.

The Guardian has been running a poll, asking readers if they'd ride in the car or not. So far, 84 percent say yes. I would, too, I think. With a manual override and a human prepared to step in for oh, the first ten years or so.

I'm sure that Google, being a large company in a highly litigious society, has put the self-driving car through far more rigorous tests than any a human learner undergoes. Nonetheless, I think it ought to be required to get a driver's license, not just license plates. It should have to pass the driving test like everyone else. And then buy insurance, which is where we'll find out what the experts think. Will the rates for a self-driving car be more or less than for a newly licensed male aged 18 to 25?

To be fair, I've actually been to Nevada, and I know how empty most of those roads are. Even without that, I'd certainly rather ride in Google's car than on a roller coaster. I'd rather share the road with Google's car than with a drunk driver. I'd rather ride in Google's car than trust the next Presidential election to electronic voting machines.

That last may seem illogical. After all, riding in a poorly driven car can kill you. A gamed electronic voting machine can only steal your votes. The same problems with debugging software and checking its integrity apply to both. Yet many of us have taken quite long flights on fly-by-wire planes and ridden on driverless trains without giving it much thought.

But a car is *personal*. So much so that we tolerate 1.2 million deaths annually worldwide from road traffic; in 2011 alone, more than ten times as many people died on American roads as were killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Yet everyone thinks they're an above-average driver and feels safest when they're controlling their own car. Will a self-driving car be that delusional?

The timing was interesting because this week I have also been reading a 2009 book I missed, The Case for Working With Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good . The author, Michael Crawford, argues that manual labour, which so many middle class people have been brought up to despise, is more satisfying - and has better protection against outsourcing - than anything today's white collar workers learn in college. I've been saying for years that if I had teenagers I'd be telling them to learn a trade like automechanics, plumbing, electrical work, nursing, or even playing live music - anything requiring skill and knowledge and that can't easily be outsourced to another country in the global economy. I'd say teaching, but see last week's.

Dumb down plumbing all you want with screw-together PVC pipes and joints, but someone still has to come to your house to work on it. Even today's modern cars, with their sealed subsystems and electronic read-outs, need hands-on care once in a while. I suppose Google's car arrives back at home base and sends in a list of fix-me demands for its human minders to take care of.

When Crawford talks about the satisfaction of achieving something in the physical world, he's right, up to a point. In an interview for the Guardian in 1995 (TXT), John Perry Barlow commented to me that, "The more time I spend in cyberspace, the more I love the physical world, and any kind of direct, hard-linked interaction with it. I never appreciated the physical world anything like this much before." Now, Barlow, more than most people, knows a lot of about fixing things: he spent 17 years running a debt-laden Wyoming ranch and, as he says in that piece, he spent most of it fixing things that couldn't be fixed. But I'm going to argue that it's the contrast and the choice that makes physical work seem so attractive.

Yes, it feels enormously different to know that I have personally driven across the US many times, the most notable of which was a three-and-a-half-day sprint from Connecticut to Los Angeles in the fall of 1981 (pre-GPS, I might add, without needing to look at a map). I imagine being driven across would be more like taking the train even though you can stop anywhere you like: you see the same scenery, more or less, but the feeling of personal connection would be lost. Very much like the difference between knowing the map and using GPS. Nonetheless, how do I travel across the US these days? Air. How does Barlow make his living? Being a "cognitive dissident". And Crawford writes books. At some point, we all seem to want to expand our reach beyond the purely local, physical world. Finding that balance - and employment for 9 billion people - will be one of this century's challenges.

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Comments (1)

  1. 10com - EU should reclaim the digits:
    May 24, 2012 at 01:10 PM

    Due to the huge marketing budget of Google Inc, and the filtering capability of it's search-engine, the Google supported self-driving car project gets a lot of attention worldwide. But there are many more projects. To bring in some diversity, check out the Italian project "VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge" where 4 driverless vehicles drove from Italy (Europe) to Shanghai (China).

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