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27 October 2014

Individualism, (the Illusion of) Control, and Self-Driving Cars

The self-driving car seems like an imminent inevitability. More than just convenience, they promise to make us safer. People are easily distracted or impaired (e.g. from exhaustion or chemicals); computers are consistent and singly predictable. Sign me up! When can I get one?

[record scratch]

I see trouble on the horizon. We already have a safer alternative to personal, private automobile use: public transportation. People in the United States, however, have been reluctant to use public transportation, in part, because we are culturally far more individualistically oriented than communally oriented; we valorize individual choice over collective benefit. Given that this is the case, I am skeptical that the average American will be willing to give up direct control of his car.

There are two issues along these lines that are far from reconciled, yet. First are the implementation of the technological options and their adoption by users. It is possible that self-driving cars could actually end up being more a series of automated override failsafes; in other words, people would continue to drive cars as they always have, but the cars will be smart enough to stop people from doing the stupid things that we frequently do. Second are the laws regarding the technology. How comfortable will our lawmakers, politicians, and judges be reframing laws that remove human operators from accountability? Today, when there is a car "accident," we typically attempt to assign blame to one or more drivers (i.e. individuals). In a future where there is no human (at least directly or immediately) driving the car, whom do we blame when--in the increasingly rare instances where they do happen--car accidents happen? Do we blame Google? Ford? a nameless computer engineer?

I think that it's easy to see how self-driving cars could force us to reconceive--or perhaps reproduce--our culture.

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