Freedom and the Autonomous Car

Freedom and the Autonomous Car (Enlarge)

Gearing up for the onrush of autonomous cars, Dori Oriyan, a PhD candidate in BIU’s Science, Technology & Society Program, gauges how the new “species” will affect our lives and freedom of movement


In the final scene of the iconic 1991 movie Thelma and Louise, the heroines realize they’ve been captured. Not just by the police, but by the social structures they were bound by their entire lives. Instead of surrendering, they opt for the “road not taken.” They put the pedal to the gas on their convertible Ford Thunderbird, and keep driving over the cliff. It is no coincidence that the car is the star of the final scene. Throughout the movie, it symbolizes freedom from all social restraints.


Nowadays a new kind of car has been making headlines. In 2014, Google presented an autonomous car, which wasn’t even the first of its kind. Although Google ultimately abandoned its plans to manufacture these cars, since then, interest in autonomous cars has reached tsunami levels.


Ethicists, technologists and science fiction writers have been coming up with all kinds of scenarios examining the idea of the autonomous car, and the “values” and “ethics” incorporated into its programming. For instance, if put in a situation where a life-threatening choice has to be made to injure one person in order to save two, what will it choose?


To me, these are frivolous questions which evade the issue. Autonomous cars won’t fall asleep on the wheel, won’t text while driving, and will basically be much safer than human drivers. True, they will be more susceptible to hacking than regular cars. Their use will probably open a new front in the war between hackers and programmers, already being fought over elevators, airports and electric networks. However, these issues will not curb the use of the autonomous car.


Changing our Lives


What I find most interesting about the widespread use of autonomous cars is the change they will bring to our daily lives. It won’t be the first time that a vehicle would unexpectedly change human history. The suburbs, for instance, created a unique lifestyle, different from anything experienced before, and the sole cause of that is the private car. The manufacturing production lines developed by Henry Ford defined modern America, and forever changed the role of the human worker.


How will the autonomous car change our lives? It might alter the face of our cities. The city as we know it revolves around vehicles. Roads, parking lots, pollution. The new opportunities the autonomous car offers challenges every basic assumption and lifestyle choice we have. For example: why look for a nearby parking spot when we can simply have the car come to us when we need it? Why buy a car when you only use it for a few hours a day? Why get stuck in traffic when traffic flow can be managed like the blood flowing in our veins? If we have to spend so much time traveling, shouldn’t we take advantage of the benefits of the autonomous car in order to use this time to do something more productive? Why limit people’s mobility according to their age? Or physical limitations? Why confine people just because they can’t drive?


A car, as we know it today, serves as a mobile personal space which reflects a person’s values, social status and even masculinity. It also offers us the freedom and power to get into our cars at any given moment and drive anywhere. The autonomous car is a new “species” altogether. In order to function, the autonomous car has to maintain contact with a range of networks, both for security and navigation reasons, which means the car’s whereabouts are monitored and known at any given moment. The travel data is all registered and could be exposed. Also, the autonomous car will probably not be privately owned, which means that the space we will travel in will probably be shared and not private, similar to a home vs. a hotel.


Freedom of Movement Vs. Efficiency


But most of all, the autonomous car isn’t “free.” Its navigation system will not only know where we are and where we are headed at any given moment, but will also “approve” and make final decisions about our destination for us.


Imagine a situation where Google is the autonomous car system provider and it clashes with the city of New York over the amount of taxes it should be paying for its services. Google could decide that its cars will no longer travel to Manhattan, and thus essentially boycott and paralyze the city of New York.


So basically, the autonomous car can chip away at our sense of ownership, privacy, and even freedom of mobility. Why, then, is the autonomous car such an obvious part of our near future? The answer is simple: efficiency.


Modernism sanctifies efficiency as the key parameter in evaluating objects (from a simple plastic toy to social processes). The car, as we know it, is considered to be a part of the modern world, but today it is also an expression of individuality, prowess and power, which basically has nothing to do with the modern, efficiency-driven world, in which the objective of a car is to bring us from point A to point B as fast and as efficiently as possible. The autonomous car does away with imbuing the car with these personal values, and instead, will doom the classic car, in favor of more efficiency.


I would guess that had Thelma and Louise had an autonomous car, when Thelma tells Louise to drive over the cliff in the last scene of the movie, the car would not have allowed this to happen, chirping that “this action stands against the user agreement you signed. Should we switch to commercials now or online shopping until the police arrive?”