Driverless ain’t up for debate

I gave a talk recently about future tech trends, and how they would change some really fundamental concepts within the modern economy and our expectations of life. One of the topics was the idea that, in the future, we’d all be passengers.

I was talking about the advent of driverless cars, and what they would mean for our car-centric way of life. Anyway, it spawned some lively online chats where it became apparent that, for a men and women of a certain age (mostly men) there’s still a lot of scepticism about driverless cars. It’s about time we put it to rest, because they are coming. In fact, they’re already here.

Yes, driverless is already here…
There’s no shortage of driverless systems out there, and not in some lab or some limited field test. They’re already mass produced automotive products. Cars routinely park themselves, with some driver assistance, but they are partially driverless nevertheless. And for years, cars have automatically braked (skid control, traction control etc.) and applied the throttle. These systems are constantly evolving and underpin the basics of fully driverless transport.

Driverless systems are a commercial reality, right now, today. There’s a proven marketplace for the technology, they are in demand and they keep evolving, year on year, becoming more fully-automated driving systems.

Why the strange debate over things that have already happened…
Where in the driverless car’s evolution is there still room for debate about the imminent arrival of driverless cars? If it’s merely the fact that we don’t have fully driverless cars on sale yet, it’s hardly a debating point worth making.

But many people can’t accept driverless cars. Which is irrational, when you consider the evidence:

  • The economic signals are very strong, investment in developing the driverless market is huge. Not just from major car manufacturers like Volvo, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Ford (etc.) but also from technology corporations like Google, Sony, LG, Samsung, IBM, Apple and so on.
  • Governments across the world are reviewing legislation to facilitate the progress of driverless automotive products. This includes initiatives within the fields of licensing, insurance and vehicle maintenance standards. Legislatures in the US and Europe have passed laws allowing driverless vehicle tests on public roads, with a view to long term implementation, and this process has been ongoing for years.
  • We are already using iterations of driverless technology and have been for years. It’s a fundamental part of the modern automotive business.

The idea that we’d get this far in an economic and legislative cycle and not produce a result is almost unthinkable, given the sheer scale and distribution of the driverless car development issues, from global corporations through to small engineering firms on the private side, and governments and civil servants in dozens of different countries on the other.

This is not like the space programme, nor a new kind of railway, or some grand civic engineering scheme that will never make the light of day. We’re about a decade away from the first fully driverless cars for sale, but very few industry voices still doubt the are coming. Like climate change, the evidence it is happening, is overwhelming.

To argue against it is to be in denial. And denial about what?

Driverless denial, not driverless debate.
Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, famously ridiculed Steve Jobs on TV 2004, laughing that a $400 cell phone from Apple would never take off because nobody wanted a $400 cell phone. When he made that comment, mobile phones all featured data connectivity, simple games, apps, internet browsers and such. All they needed was a touch screen, which is what Apple added with the $400 iPhone. Which then went on to break records and decimate the mobile phone market. Now all phones follow the form set by the iPhone.

In many respects, driverless cars are in a similar pre-iPhone state, they’re awaiting the addition of the one universal feature that brings all the existing technologies together. In the case of the driverless car, this is the driverless AI. These AI systems are now being tested all over the world, in a staggering range of variations, from driverless electric tourist pod and visitor centre shuttles to racing cars and even self-piloting jet fighters.

However, the idea of a driverless car is very disconcerting to people because it implies giving-up the act of driving, which also implies giving-up car ownership. This fear attacks people on a deep, unconscious level, because so many of us invest the car with a huge amount of our personal identity… consider this:

  • Cars are status symbols. They are an expression of wealth, your driving skills and so on. If you’re successful you are rich and a racing driver at heart. Or you have a chauffeur and a limo. You don’t drive a rusty old hatchback, or brag about being slow. And even if you own a limo, you don’t joke about having to drive yourself because you can’t afford a chauffeur.
  • Cars represent freedom and personal liberty. Getting a license is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood. The car has been used as a metaphor for freedom and adventure in films, music and literature since the early 1900s. It’s ingrained into people’s perception of the individual.
  • Motoring journalism is devoted to testing automotive products in unrealistic settings. This is beyond argument because proportionally speaking, real world car usage is spent mostly moving at low speed in congested traffic, or parked. However the proportion of motoring journalism devoted to the car in those contexts is small compared to writing about speed, performance, technology and their use in conditions which are encountered infrequently. This means cars exist in a media world that misdescribes the experience of driving to appeal to our distorted notions driving as enjoyable, as opposed to driving as a drudge.

All this cultural baggage (most of which is marketing to sell cars) means that cars are ingrained in our psyche more deeply than even computers or mobile phones. When people think about a world where they’re *not* driving, they are thinking about a world where they’re deprived of a whole range of psychological constructs as much as physical ones. The loss of the car means the loss of freedom and fun, the loss of social status, the loss of wealth and independence.

It also forces people to consider inwardly about their own psyche, and how irrational it is to spend so much money on something that spends most of its life parked-up and empty, or to pay extra for high speed performance when it’s impossible to use it. Especially something that dates and loses its ability to give psychological support as soon as new model comes out.

People don’t like feeling conflicted about their choices and assumptions like that.

One guy I was discussing this with online sent me pictures of his own cars and country estate. He went on at length about his own personal track record as a businessman. He was keen to establish his credibility as a man with money. Which was, of course, irrelevant to the discussion about driverless cars.

However, his behaviour was an emotional display of ego. It showed was the depth of the unconscious emotional attachment this man had to the ideals he endowed upon cars and driving. For this man, a driverless car represented the equivalent of being neutered. It made him feel so personally threatened that he had to send a stranger (me) pictures of his house and cars and brag about his wealth. It was a sort of panic.

What does this mean for the progress of driverless?
It doesn’t make much difference, the wheels are in motion (no pun intended) and the driverless car is coming, like it or not. However, the resistance to it will be very strong. Driving is an article of faith. It’s a matter of personal identity. It’s almost as deep as attitudes to marriage, gender equality, civil liberties and freedom of speech.

There are also deeply vested interests in retarding the progress of driverless cars, not least from insurance companies and industries who supply the emergency services and urban infrastructure. Again, we see parallels in the divestment of wealth from oil and coal, and the vested interests and lobbying in those industries.

The ship of progress has set sail, and it might get delayed but it never turns back. Perhaps, if you doubt the onset of driverless vehicles, the question you should be asking is why don’t you want it to happen, rather than conjure reasons to explain why it can’t… because in many respects, it already has.