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Autonomous Cars: Freedom or Prison?

Autonomous Cars: Freedom or Prison?

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Let's talk about autonomous cars today. I was driving today, and while merging into traffic, a conversation I had with my friend Tom this past weekend came to mind - one about autonomous cars and whether they would solve merging bottlenecks. While interesting in its own right, that's not what I was thinking about. Rather, thinking about the possible solutions to that problem brought up a far more significant thought: will autonomous cars cause us to adjust our days to them? Said a different way, will we change our behavior in such a way that the "optimization" of transportation through an autonomous vehicle system causes us to voluntarily alter our schedules?

Most of the detractors of autonomous vehicle tech will point to improved public transportation as one of the possible and plausible solutions. While entirely valid, in order to efficiently operate a public transportation system, schedules must be used. In order to use the bus/train/subway/trolley, you need to get to a certain point by a certain time. That's fine, but it takes away your freedom of movement afforded by a car wherein you can use it at your leisure.

Consider your autonomous car, and suppose it's yours - you own it outright. If you have to be to work at, say, 9:00 am, you can leave your house, travel the 20 miles to work in 20 minutes, and get there promptly at 9:00, assuming there's no traffic. So you leave at 8:40 and all is well with the world. Now let's add in some traffic. You continue to leave the house at 8:40, and for a week straight you arrive to work at 9:05. Nathan, your boss, has told you that if you're late one more day, don't bother to come in. On your way home that evening, you're talking to yourself in your car when you say, "If I don't find a better route to work, I'm sunk!"

"Find a better route to work?" Alice, your car's OS, quietly asks.

Hmm... you think to yourself, why didn't I think of that before. "Yes," you tell Alice.

"I didn't find a better route, but if you leave at 8:37 am, you will arrive to work on-time," she responds.

Why didn't I think of that? You think to yourself and roll your eyes. Well, you didn't, and that's life, but how does Alice leave 3 minutes earlier, and get you to work 5 minutes sooner? That's the autonomous system, optimizing your route. With autonomous driving, things like changing lanes, merging, yielding at intersections, and improper braking through turns will be smoother, as vehicle to vehicle communication will allow for less reactive driving. As this becomes the norm, and you rely more and more on Alice to tell you the optimum time to do things, at what point does Alice start dictating your travel decisions more than you do? I imagine that our car system will be somehow linked to our phones, and there will be the option for alerts and such, which is how Alice would tell you it's time to go somewhere.

"But Mike, I already adjust my schedule to compensate for traffic," you argue.

Yes, but I feel that this will be a bigger shift. I don't know how it will play out, nor if it will be detrimental or positive, but I believe it has the potential to significantly alter how we currently plan travel, and it leaves much more to the algorithms of "big data" and the companies with something to gain. Maybe Apple alters your route in the name of efficiency so you pass a billboard that they paid for. Maybe the system is divided into premium and base users, and unless you pay for Alphabet's route optimization tool, you are relegated to slower alternatives.

Consider the very real possibility that you lease your car in an ownership sharing model, wherein no one actually owns a car, rather, the parent company sells cars only to fleet management companies like Hertz, which has by now moved on from rental only. So now there's never a car sitting in your driveway. Instead, it is constantly on the move serving someone, and you call it up as necessary. You're back to waiting on someone else's time table.

I'm not afraid of change (though I don't like it either...) and I'm all for some semblance of autonomous driving, but let's get it on buses and taxi cabs first, then let's see how it works in reality before it gets dropped on us from the people who "know better."

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