Take the Self-Driving Car with a Grain of Salt

Olivia Gilbert, Columnist

Utter the words “self-driving car” or “autonomous vehicle” or “robo-car,” and it’s bound to elicit a variety of reactions that range from fanatical to practical. Some see the self-driving car as yet another way for government to control our lives and predict it would only be a matter of time until the computers governing these cars would be used to monitor the human behind the wheel. A more immediate and obvious hazard is the potential for hackers to corrupt computer-operated cars.

But despite these concerns, the cars are extolled because they may be much safer than human-driven ones. The road is one of the most dangerous places for a human today — car accidents cause about 30,000 deaths annually, and 90 percent of driving accidents result from operator error — read: human driving is faulty. According to a study by the Eno Center for Transportation, it’s estimated that if 90 percent of cars on the road were self-driving, 4.2 million accidents could be avoided.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla (which released its own autonomous software this past October) predicts the eventual outlaw of human-driven cars. The Verge article “Elon Musk” reported Musk’s recent comments at a technology conference on human versus robot-driven cars:

“It’s too dangerous,” Musk said, “You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”

The referenced numbers and logic can’t be debated. And yet, part of me can’t help but consider what we would lose in a driver-less world. Maybe I feel like this because I come from Michigan, the birthplace of the automobile and a state where much of the economy and culture is dependent on the car industry, but I suspect my feelings are more related to the deeply ingrained American notion that cars provide freedom.

In a world where so much of what we do is outsourced, automated, digitized or otherwise done for us, driving a car provides a rare bit of autonomy. Everyone who owns or has driven a car understands the liberating feeling of getting behind the wheel and taking yourself somewhere.

In fact, an entire cultural genre exists solely to document the unique relationship between Americans and cars: the “road” genre. The undying popularity of road movies, books and music (think: “Life is a Highway”) demonstrates our continuing admiration for understanding ourselves and our country through driving.

Nearly 60 years after its original publication, the sense of freedom and liberation captured in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” still resonates with many Americans. “I discovered I did not know my own country,” John Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charley” to explain why he hit the road at age 58. Thelma and Louise drove themselves off a cliff as a statement of freedom and independence over captivity, even when that freedom meant death.

It’s true, though, that driving is rarely as romantic and revelatory as it’s depicted in road movies and literature. Ninety-nine percent of the time, driving is a mundane task we dread, whether it is the monotony of the daily commute or the drudgery of errand running. In these cases, a self-driving car makes perfect sense. Who wouldn’t rather be free to make phone calls, listen to a podcast or eat a bagel while traveling from point A to point B?

But Americans would suffer in forgetting the value that exists in driving oneself not to get somewhere, but merely for the sake of the journey. The road trip is, as the Smithsonian article “Taking the Great American Road Trip” points out, “the supreme example of the journey as destination.” We are free to take spontaneous turns and unplanned stops, decisions we would be less likely to make if we were chauffeured by an auto-car speeding toward a pre-determined destination.

We don’t have the choice to look down at an iPad or book when we drive ourselves. We are forced to pay attention to our surroundings, be they 200 miles of Nebraskan cornfields or a breathtaking ascent into the Rockies.

In a world that places so much value on results and continues to devalue the process of getting there, the road trip is a rare and powerful refuge of independent action and exploration in which we are free to revel in the journey without worrying about where we end up.

So even if 40 years from now we’re all being driven around by our robo-cars, let’s not forget that every once in a while we need to turn off the automatic function and drive ourselves around the city, across the state or from coast to coast with no particular destination in mind, just driving.