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Self-driving cars will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now

Removing drivers from our transportation system disrupts delicate social contract.

Part of Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Here’s what they told us.

Meredith Broussard is an assistant professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University. She is the author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World. She is an excellent driver.

The vision of the “smart city” of the future involves driverless cars. Driverless trucks. Driverless buses. Driverless trains. But what happens to the space inside vehicles when nobody is driving? Is it really a smart social strategy to get rid of drivers?

Recently, I rode a bus uptown in Manhattan with a visibly disoriented and distressed man. As we passed 14th Street, the man got up from his seat and started throwing air punches and talking loudly to an imaginary companion. Those of us seated near him started to lean away and wonder if we ought to move.

Then the bus driver’s voice came over the bus’s sound system: “All passengers must remain seated. All passengers riding on this bus, please sit down.” The bus driver sounded authoritative. The man sat down. All the passengers looked relieved. I exchanged a look with a woman seated across the aisle. The look said we were both worried that the boxing man’s behavior might have escalated, and we were grateful for the driver.

The simple explanation for why this situation didn’t escalate: the unspoken social contract of the bus driver’s authority in this space. We have invested years in developing social contracts around both private and public transportation. When you get into a bus or a train, or even a car, you acknowledge that the person at the wheel is in charge. This power relationship is what allows shared transportation to flourish, and this social contract is what helps many of us in marginalized groups feel safer while riding transportation. It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle. Not just because the technology doesn’t work — but because it doesn’t feel safe to be alone in a small, enclosed space with strange men.

The capitalist gospel of technological disruption says that driverless cars are a good goal because they have the potential to disrupt existing systems and generate enormous wealth. Autonomous vehicle advocates also argue that pointing out potential problems is futile because “progress” is inevitable and these issues will work themselves out. I call this attitude “technochauvinism” in my book Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World. Technochauvinists believe that technology is always the best and highest solution. It generally comes with a healthy dose of unacknowledged sexism and a disregard for social factors.

Technochauvinists claim that everyone will be safer in driverless vehicles because tech will lower the number of accidents. I question that claim in my book. But aside from that, the truth is our threat model should include other passengers as well as other vehicles.

The current transportation system of buses, trains, and trucks has built-in protections that we have collectively invested in over time. The vehicles are operated by people who are good at their jobs, who like their jobs, and who do more than technochauvinists think to keep our complex social and technical transportation system running. It’s not smart city design to take away the important work — both visible and invisible — that bus, truck, train, and taxi drivers do.

Sure, the current system isn’t perfect — humans have plenty of biases that affect how people interact in and around vehicles. But turning control over to sensors and code only reinforces existing social problems and makes them harder to see and more difficult to fix.

There’s nothing inevitable about autonomous vehicles. In fact, the fantasy of driverless cars has been failing for longer than you think. We’ve devoted plenty of time and money to the driverless delusion. In 50 years, we’ll likely regret spending so much on this futile, antisocial endeavor. It’s time to collectively say no to the fantasy of the driverless car and invest in making our existing transportation systems better. Instead of spending billions on an imaginary world, let’s fund the world we already have.

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