Commentary

On the Road to Self-Driving Cars With Some Pitfalls on the Way

By S. FOX | May 29, 2019

The King James version of the Holy Bible reminds us early in Chapter 1 that God created a male and a female, blessed them, commanded them to be fruitful, replenish the earth, and subdue and have dominion over it.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who lived from 484 to 425 B.C., reportedly stated that “of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and have control over nothing.”

History tells us about heroic explorers who navigated vast uncharted bodies of water and explored and mapped strange lands, mountains and deep valleys. More contemporaneously, we know man mastered flight, combustion engine-powered vehicles and, most recently, space travel, just to mention a few. These miraculous achievements would never have occurred had our ancestors not been deeply imbued with unimaginable self-reliance and independence, or what President Herbert Hoover termed “rugged individualism.”

America is the land of rugged individualists who enjoy taking control of their daily lives, making decisions and accepting the responsibilities of the outcomes. The concept of “control” is reportedly one of the most thoroughly studied topics in modern psychology. Research studies in 2015 by Landau, Kay and Whitson have shown that people have a basic need for feeling in control and for living in an orderly and predictable world, where they feel they can achieve specific results or outcomes.

In fact, “perceived control” has been linked to better mental health, personal relationships and adjusting to change. Studies have shown that individuals experiencing stress from the loss of control of the world around them often react by developing defensive counter-measure mechanisms known as psychological “compensatory controls,” i.e., searches for explanatory “external systems,” or contrived reasons and scenarios, which help bolster the coping skills they need to restore their concepts of control and predictability.

Recent innovations in automotive technology, especially involving connected and automated vehicles (CAVs), however, may pose some new and interesting challenges for all who still value control.

For more than a century, automobiles have been instrumental in providing individuals with the ability to travel at will to any destination. In most cases, with the exception of a home, an automobile is the most expensive item most people own. Pre-purchase research and cost considerations invariably transition into commitments of care, control and responsibility, all of which, when properly executed, provide the important valued rewards and satisfaction of ownership and operation. The autonomy of CAVs, however, is obviously designed to compromise control.

As the move toward more autonomy progresses, the question becomes when will CAVs, capable of operation without a driver, become the norm. Some of these vehicles are already in use. This begs the immensely important questions: (1) what happens when rugged individualists who enjoy the freedom and control (driving) and achieving outcomes (reaching destinations) are deprived of such controls? And, (2) how will they respond to the academics and bureaucrats who believe America’s current affinity for exciting, carbon fuel-consuming automotive products must end and be replaced by non-polluting, electrified and fully autonomous, non-exciting conveyances?

CAVs generate signals and depend upon data input from their surroundings to operate safely. This poses another new question as to whether someone with evil intentions can jam systems, and thus create mayhem on highways and byways. Think about the stress related to CAVs. Can they cause even greater apprehensions, fears and psychological traumas due to the fact that they are designed to operate not only driverless, but also without any of the usual driving controls such as steering wheels and foot pedals that have always been associated with vehicle operation and safety? Imagine a vehicle with no driver or controls.

While CAVs may offer predictability and consistency, no one will be able to respond to situations requiring human judgment, adaptability and logic. CAVs may offer valid options for the elderly or disabled, but without a driver, aid or individual personal services will be unavailable. CAVs may offer solutions for poor visibility (fog) and human fatigue and provide more accuracy controlling speed, but can they ensure human-related errors will not subject passengers to questionable locations or terminate at an incorrect  destination? Or that technical glitches won’t lead to striking and killing a pedestrian at a crosswalk, as an Uber-operated self-driving vehicle did in Tempe, Ariz., approximately one year ago?

CAVs may minimize pollution and travel time by avoiding traffic delays and construction sites but necessitate extraordinarily large amounts of personal data, which raises new concerns regarding data storage, sharing, access and privacy, justifiably troubling the general public, especially in light of ongoing hacking problems. What happens when the power grid goes down and CAVs are not connected?

And because fully autonomous vehicles will not require any occupant participation, will they obviate driver’s license tests or the need to carry documentation while operating such vehicles? Will CAVs essentially open the door for anyone, whether a legal resident, alcohol or drug impaired, under age or criminally inclined, to travel the roadways with the rest of us? Will future driver’s tests consist of just sitting in the passenger seat, buckling up and pushing a button? Will increasing reliance on autonomy, requiring concomitant decreases in our ability to exercise controls in our individual “worlds,” result in new psychological as well as safety concerns for all of us? Or is it all just part of some master plan? “CAVs and Sanctuary Cities – Perfect Together”?

Everything around us seems to be changing at light speed. The push is on for renewable energy sources, electrification and autonomy, and in response, vehicle manufacturers have poured huge sums of money into developing and gearing up to produce what they have bet the ranch on will be a hugely successful transformation. What many overlook however, is that we, the “rugged individualists,” are still in control and remain the ultimate arbiters of what (products purchased) and who (we elect to hold office) succeed or fail. What we purchase influences current production schedules and future products, and vice versa. It’s that simple!

A 2017 issue of AMAC Magazine (for the Association of Mature American Citizens) amusingly suggests the first autonomous trip occurred many years ago, thanks to “the horse who knew the way, over the river and through the woods, to carry the sleigh through white and drifted snow, (all the way) to Grandmother’s house.” That, obviously, was yesterday. Many years from now, will those who succeed us be happy we were so zealous in our never-ending quest for ever-increasing autonomy and less human control, or regret we lacked the vision and foresight to predict what might ensue?

It is more than curious to realize how a song written 50 years ago by Zager and Evans titled “In the Year 2525” could have been so prescient. In the fourth stanza: “In the year 5555 your arms are hanging limp at your sides, your legs got nothing to do, some machine is doing that for you.” Incredibly, it’s all happening now, 3,535 years ahead of schedule!

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Only you can control your future.” Think carefully and choose wisely.

S. Fox lives in Little Egg Harbor.

 

 

 

 

 

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