Book review: The Driver in the Driverless Car

I got through the first four chapters of Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever’s The Driver in the Driverless Car before deciding not to continue.

The Driver in the Driverless Car is appropriate for readers who have very little familiarity with emerging technology and have never thought much about technology ethics issues. I’m not part of the intended audience but I was prompted to try the book anyway because it seemed to be specifically addressing the issue of how we should choose which technologies to adopt. That is a very important question, and I was excited to see it posed by a book you might find in an airport terminal store.

The authors spend a lot of time familiarizing the reader with various emerging technologies and some of the most well-known ethical dilemmas those technologies pose. As they do this the authors (who admit to being early adopter tech-enthusiasts themselves) seem unable to stifle their excitement about the new technologies well enough to provide serious criticism at the same time. So their attempt to be even-handed somewhat fails, but this might have been a deliberate choice.

My problem with this book is not its simplification, but the authors’ rubric for how to assess technology. They propose a 3-question test of all new technology: Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are the risks/rewards? Does it create autonomy rather than dependence?

These are fine questions to explore, but can they serve as a basis on which to build a useful technology adoption assessment? Aside from being indistinct from each other, the questions encode and promote the authors’ own personal values (equality, rationalism, autonomy) rather than create a stable framework that works for different people in different situations. Technology users and use contexts are extremely varied, so a technology that might seem to, say, promote equality to one user in one context could still raise all kinds of red flags to another user in another context.

I like that the authors are thinking about the question of how to assess technology for adoption, but there is danger in going about this the wrong way. Concepts like equality and autonomy don’t mean the same thing to everyone, and are easily politicized; it’s easy to take them and run very far and very quickly, irreversibly, in the wrong direction.

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My social media quitting story

One day around 2012 I was walking to the corner store to pick up some beer. As I walked, I caught myself composing a status update (something about buying beer, probably) that I would type into Facebook when I got back home. At that moment I realized I had been doing this sort of thing for weeks or months, maybe longer: mentally translating my meatspace experiences into content to share on social media.

Facebook had influenced my day-to-day thought process in a way I hadn’t anticipated when I started using it. It had essentially rewired my brain, and I found this intrusive and disturbing. I also felt that by constantly mentally framing my experiences to support social media posting, I was diluting my connection to the world around me. It felt like a technology-induced mental disorder.

Fortunately it was a disorder I had the power to rid myself of. Right then and there on my way to the store I decided I was not going to post that status update. Instead I was going to delete my Facebook account and never look back. When I returned home, that’s exactly what I did.


Do you have a social media quitting story? Please feel free to share it and I will publish it here! Post it as a comment or email me.

Beyond the Trolley Problem: more ethical issues with driverless cars

I. The Trolley Problem

Much has been written about the ethical problems with driverless cars, but in most of those writings the emphasis is on a specific hypothetical “Trolley Problem” scenario where the car must decide between swerving to avoid a crash that would be fatal to the passenger, or allowing the passenger to die so that someone else (e.g. a pedestrian) is not killed.

The Trolley Problem itself is many decades old and ethicists are still not close to settling it. There’s no good reason why recasting it with driverless cars will suddenly inspire a solution. Besides, people die in car crashes every day, in situations of much greater ethical clarity; it doesn’t nudge our answer to the question “should we drive cars?”

Furthermore, the driverless car Trolley Problem scenario is unlikely to happen much, and even then it can be somewhat mitigated with more technology: better sensors to avoid road hazards, signage or barriers to limit pedestrian road access, better airbags, better brakes, etc. So what other, deeper ethical issues are raised by driverless cars?

II. Driverful and driverless cars cannot coexist

Research suggests that driverless cars are safer than human-operated cars–so long as the driverless cars are interacting only with other driverless cars. But when human drivers have to interact with driverless cars, that is the least safe scenario: human drivers have trouble “reading” driverless cars, and can get spooked by them, leading to accidents.

This means if driverless cars come into regular use, they may need to be mandated, at the exclusion of human-operated cars, at least within certain zones. For people living within those zones, the rule will be “driverless car or no car.”

III. “Ours,” not “yours”

Now consider the economics of owning a driverless car. The car itself will be expensive. While you are not driving it, a normal car is sitting in your driveway or in a parking space basically just leaking value and gathering rust. A driverless car, on the other hand, could be out acting like a taxi, making you money and helping to pay for itself.

Turning your driverless car into a taxi would require after-market alterations, some virtual hailing and payment services, and some additional legal and tax work, all with additional price tags. Driverless car manufacturers or dealers might anticipate the demand for this and price it into the vehicles as a standard feature package.

This creates a strong incentive for people who buy driverless cars to essentially start their own cab companies. Actual cab companies would probably just beat them to the punch, so long as unions don’t get involved (though if cab companies with actual unionized drivers have trouble competing with Uber it’s not clear how they could possibly compete with Ace Driverless Taxi Service).

So in a place where driverless cars are the only cars allowed, and where owning a driverless car has considerably more up-front costs than car ownership does now, the default way for most people to get around will be by hailing a driverless cab.

IV. Cascading effects – family impact example

A generation of DOD (driverless-on-demand) and you will see suburban and exurban homes built without garages, while new development will continue to be designed around cars. That will cement the DOD arrangement, because it will become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who wants a house with a garage, but it will also become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who walks or rides a bike places.

Living without a family vehicle in a city designed for cars means that having a family will become more costly too. Driverless cars might be built with fold-out kids’ seats like the newer Dodge Grand Caravans have, but anyone who has young kids and a car knows that the car is also a portable storage facility for toys, changing supplies, spare clothes, a stroller, and bunch of other things that would be a pain to lug in and out of the DOD car every time.

Having kids might therefore mean either putting up with a bigger hassle each time you travel, or having to shell out for your own driverless car–no more getting off easy with a used minivan or SUV. This adds up to one more excuse on the “it’s too expensive to have kids these days” pile, and as a result we might see lower fertility rates (at least among people who are future-oriented and careful with their finances).

V. The end of something beautiful

There’s something about being a teenager, craving freedom, learning to drive, and finally getting your license that is an essential part of the American experience. Another part of that experience being able to occasionally get out on the open road and command the movements of a machine that can take you across the continent. And there’s also something about when the machine is yours, putting the hood up and tinkering with it, changing its brakes and oil, even vacuuming it and washing it that millions of Americans find intoxicating and are able to bond over.

OK, maybe driverless cars will bring their own set of unique rituals and beautiful experiences and rites of passage that we can find culturally unifying. (Sure, maybe.) But driverless cars definitely spell death for driverful cars as an institution. This means the death of classic cars too. You can’t have classic cars without having cars that regular people can drive and own and maintain.

If you’ve never been to a classic car show, I highly recommend it. Sometimes they are quasi-spontaneous, so that one day there will simply be a few dozen spectacularly well-maintained half-a-century-old cars sitting one after the other in a parking lot as you pass by. Take a stroll through one of those shows. Talk to the owners. Look at those cars, their shapes and lines, the way they were built. With permission from the owners, feel some of the materials with your hand. When people say “They don’t make’em like they used to,” those aren’t hollow words. The whole character of those cars is different. It would be a tragedy to lose that piece of Americana or relegate it to museums.

In the end we are faced with a kind of Trolley Problem after all. Driverless cars do offer their advantages–any avid reader who has to drive places can understand that. By steering our technology adoption choices in that direction we assure ourselves some convenience, some safety, some freed-up time to be productive or to rest, maybe even some savings per mile traveled (averaged over our lifetimes at least). But is it worth what we would give up?

Setting a technology baseline

There are often good reasons to eschew the latest technologies in favor of older ones. As I think of these reasons, they seem to fall into various categories. Here are some of those categories, and an example of each:

  • Practical reasons. E.g. you don’t want to worry about running out of batteries or going out of service range with your GPS or smartphone so you use a paper map for navigation.
  • Emotional reasons. E.g. you feel you will enjoy your lawn more if you have poured your sweat into it, so you use an old-school reel mower.
  • Moral or ethical reasons. E.g. you listen to music on CDs instead of live streaming it using an Alexa or similar listening device which poses privacy concerns.

People can be observed lining up to buy the latest technology anyway. Apparently we are often swayed by new technology’s tempting offer of benefits. When we do forego new technology though, it is rarely in exchange for something more primitive than what we were accustomed to while growing up. (The resurgence of interest in vinyl records might be an exception.) For instance, I don’t use a smartphone, and at times I’ve considered just having a landline, but I have not entertained the idea of going without a phone altogether.

This makes it all the more important to think hard about what kind of technologies we give our children access to. With technology we don’t just give our children tools, we also give them a frame of what is acceptable or tolerable–in a sense, what is conceivable–for use. In the future our children may wish to retreat from some new technology (for practical, emotional, moral/ethical, or whatever other reasons), and what they feel comfortable retreating to is being decided right now, by us.