Baby, you can’t drive my car

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When I first heard about self-driving cars, my reaction was amusement. That’s going to be a disaster for Hollywood, I thought.

Just picture a car chase involving two self-driving cars. Neither would be able to bump the other, thanks to anti-crash software that automatically throws on the brakes when you’re about to hit another object. Neither would be able to exceed the speed limit. So you’d have one vehicle following another through town at 25 mph, gliding gently around corners and stopping at every red light.

Not exactly The French Connection or Bullitt.

Still, Hollywood will probably find a way to create suspense flicks without the usual scenes of automobiles tumbling down steep slopes to a fiery demise.

But, as I learn more and more about self-driving cars, I’ve come to realize there is a serious side to this advance in technology.

First, let’s agree that self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), will be a lot safer on the whole than human-driven transportation. Most people are terrible drivers. They text, guzzle alcohol, gobble food, yammer on the phone, and apply makeup, all while driving. They’re prone to fits of rage when they get in conflicts with other drivers, sometimes leading them to run off the road, crash, or even haul out that handy gun they’re carrying and blow someone away.

Self-driving cars will eliminate those problems, or so their supporters say. Computers won’t get angry, won’t fall asleep at the wheel, won’t become distracted and plow into a tree. They won’t peel out at intersections or blow foul clouds of “coal-rolling” smoke at innocent pedestrians.

All that sounds great. And yet I worry.

The dozens of articles I’ve read about the future of transportation say the goal is to eliminate human-driven vehicles, at least within cities. No one will own personal cars. Instead, the cities (and possibly private companies) will maintain fleets of AVs that citizens can summon through their smart phones.

Freed from car payments, automotive maintenance, and automobile insurance, we would likely save a lot of money, although presumably there would be increased taxes to support the municipal fleets, and people would also have to pay per-ride.

“In less than 20 years we’ll all have stopped owning cars, and, what’s more, the internal combustion engine will have been consigned to the dustbin of history,” predicted Justin Rowlatt in an October article for BBC News.

“Self-driving electric vehicles organised into an Uberstyle network will be able to offer such cheap transport that you’ll very quickly – we’re talking perhaps a decade – decide you don’t need a car any more,” he explained.

But count me among the skeptics.

First off, there are logistical questions. How would you make a cross-country trip? How would I, for instance, travel to the Front Range to visit my family? As it is, I throw what I need into my trusty old car and drive straight to where I’m going. Usually I make a few purchases over there, and also bring home some things from the family house.

Personal AVs for road trips are considered unlikely. So would I have to board a self-driven bus to make it to the Colorado Springs city limit, then transfer all my belongings into a municipal “taxi” to travel to the family home, then reverse the entire process for the return trip? That sounds cumbersome and annoying.

And there are lingering safety questions. Sure, self-driving vehicles will improve over time, but will they ever be able to handle the complexity of driving in different conditions? I’ve motored over Wolf Creek Pass a hundred times in all sorts of weather. Would I trust a computer to navigate that pass for me when snow is falling thickly and the lane lines and even the road markers aren’t visible?

Or, in a very different scenario, what would happen if you had to flee your home ahead of a wind-driven wildfire like the one that swept down on Paradise, Calif.? Would you have to call for a ride and then wait helplessly for an AV to come? Who would decide where the cars would be sent first?

Then there are questions about situations where a driver has to make a split-second decision between two bad choices. How would a computer choose whether to hit a deer standing in the road, or a fence along the roadside? Another car stopped in front of it, or a child sitting on the curb?

Even if you believe that artificial intelligence will ultimately be able to handle all those situations, there is also the fun factor to consider. Most people enjoy driving. Driverless taxis would be great for the elderly or disabled, or anyone who doesn’t want to own a car, but for many of us, they would be a poor substitute for heading out on the highway in a car or motorcycle. (For that matter, what about motorcycles? Would they be self-driving, too?)

But my biggest concern is the most serious. AVs would spell the end of individual autonomy other than by foot or bicycle, and that could facilitate the rise of a Big Brother-style government.

Am I paranoid? If so, I’m not alone.

In May, The Economist commented, “AVs will offer an extraordinarily subtle policy tool which. . . in the hands of authoritarian governments could also become a powerful means of social control.”

The people owning fleets of AVs will have the ability to manage citizens’ movements. During elections, for instance, city leaders could send people in one political party to the polls faster than their opponents. There would be countless such opportunities for mischief.

“Passengers could lose the freedom to go anywhere they choose,” said The Economist. “The risk that not all robo-taxis will serve all destinations could open the door to segregation and discrimination.”

Let’s say there’s a protest in one part of a city. It could be anti-abortion, pro- Black Lives Matter, or pro-gun rights – it doesn’t matter. City leaders want to squelch it. Now they have an easy way to do so: They can just program their municipal AVs not to carry anyone to the demonstration.

So much for the right to free assembly.

And so much for any remaining shreds of privacy. In these city-owned, computer- controlled cars, our every venture out of doors would be documented. As The Economist states, “AVs will record everything that happens in and around them. . . . In one infamous analysis of passenger data, Uber identified one-night stands. . .” In this high-tech future, Thelma and Louise would never be able to run for the border.

More and more, technological advances will force us to decide which is more important – safety or freedom. There is no easy answer, because both are vitally important.

All I know is, I won’t give up my steering wheel without a struggle.

Gail Binkly is the editor of the Four Corners Free Press.

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From Gail Binkly.