Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers. The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.
According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes. (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.) It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals. The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors. Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.
Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians. If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury. Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper. But the safety arguments go deeper than that. They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.
I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings. We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security. Sorry, but I don’t like it.