As I write this, I'm basking in the glow of a trip down the left lane of I-95. I did a lot of things wrong. I drove too fast, I wove in and out of lanes, I didn't always leave safe following distance, but I'm in a really great mood. A self-driving car would have done a better job, but I would have had a lot less fun.
(Lead image via Wikipedia)
Autonomous cars are threatening more and more to be our future. I don't pay a whole lot of attention to them as I'm cruising the internet, but they're prevalent enough that they've made it into my consciousness. That Audi drove itself to CES, and I don't remember any stories about it ending in disaster. Plenty of cars nowadays can park themselves. Google has its cutesy bubble car plans, and more and more states are legalizing it. The car that drives itself is getting harder to ignore.
Instead of burying my head further in the sand, I want to try to come to terms with the idea that my hands and feet might not be necessary next time I hit the highway. If I'm honest with my lovely readers, and myself I'm terrified, for two main reasons. Let's ignore my other anxieties and my fear of bridges for now.
First of all, at a very basic level, giving up control over my safety makes me nervous. In the admittedly fairly short period since I learned to drive, I've begun to lose trust in other drivers. My dad, who all my life has been sort of a mythic driving god, a wealth of knowledge and experience and confidence, has started to seem like he takes too many risks. Somehow it feels less safe to be going twenty over the speed limit when my friend is driving than it does if I'm behind the wheel.
I've been told that my fears are unnecessary, that I should put more trust in other people and stop being a backseat driver. But when I'm not at the wheel now, as opposed to before I learned to drive, I still pay attention. I'm alert to everything that's going on, I do headchecks every time we change lanes, the whole license-test deal. So as a result, I see every mistake that the other driver is making. I'm often tense, I panic when I see things coming that my driver doesn't seem to. And to make my fears worse, I keep having my fears justified. Only two weeks ago, I was on the receiving end of a lovely t-bone that was not a steak, all while shouting that the light was red and we needed to stop.
I'm not claiming to be a driving god, and I'm sure that I make mistakes. Maybe I make my passengers nervous too. But I am the only person I feel comfortable with as a driver. If I'm going to get in an accident, I want it to be my own failure. When I'm sitting in the passenger's seat, I can't do shit to make sure I'm okay.
An autonomous car would not even be able to hear me yelling. I am utterly not prepared to let a computer drive for me. I can hear all the statistics, understand that its reaction times are better, and all of that, but to sit and stare out the windshield while the car moves itself sounds like a bad dream. The dream of autonomous cars is of course the glass pods that move around cities like mobile living rooms, devoid of any human overrides. Maybe this sort of shuttle system would be less stressful. But in the current crop of vehicles, to sit behind a set of controls and not be allowed to use them, while watching all the potential disasters outside, really makes me hope that autonomous cars will fade into tech history as a gimmicky gadget.
On a less fearful note, I also desperately love driving. I've commuted, I've yelled at the asshole in front of me, I've punched the steering wheel. But none of it has soiled the experience of piloting a car for me. To have such power and such control is an addicting prospect, and after waiting 16 years of my life to get a taste, I'm not having it wrested away after a mere few more years.
In his excellent book Drive, Iain Borden analyzes our love, as a society, of speed. Speed, he writes, is a hypnotic and addicting experience because of the way it makes us feel. Just like the drug of the same name, speed alters the way we perceive reality. Our kinesthetic senses are engaged, the world flashes past us like scenes at a cinema, and we don't feel anything else like it. That's why driving, and driving fast, can become such an obsession. I highly recommend you give it a read, because my weak paraphrasing does it no justice.
In the end, it all comes back to control. I'm addicted to driving just a little bit too fast, I'm addicted to having that control over the world around me. And I'm scared autonomous cars will take that away from me. That's why part of me wants the self-driving car to fail. If I hadn't ever gotten the taste of driving, I think autonomous cars would make a compelling case. But I don't want to kick back on a couch while a box moves me towards my house. I don't want to have to limit myself to a track day if a track becomes the only place I'm allowed to drive. I just want to be able to slot my little hatchback into gear and move into the fast lane.