Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Self-delusion and the self-driving car

Although self-driving car development is advancing rapidly, society has yet to seriously grapple with its consequences.

Although self-driving car development is advancing rapidly, society has yet to seriously grapple with its consequences, including issues of consumer safety and personal liability.

The premise is simple: Enter the vehicle, select the destination, and sit back while the car does the driving for you. 360-degree cameras and sensors coupled with artificial intelligence work to effortlessly pilot you across town.

Photo by Adrian Danciu
Matt Ehling

The car’s appeal is that made time and again by the high-tech industry: Simplify life by letting complex technology do the heavy lifting. Enter a “frictionless” experience devoid of hassle. The tech press has been rife with stories touting the presumed benefits. “I never want to drive again,” wrote Yahoo’s Jillian D’Onfro after a recent Google press event that highlighted the company’s self-driving car program. “It just seems so dangerous. I’d rather put my trust in lasers and cameras.”

Google is currently testing self-driving (SD) cars on the streets of Mountain View, California. These retrofitted vehicles are accompanied by human drivers in case of malfunction or failure. However, SD vehicles are also being used on Google’s corporate campus that lack any human controls — even components as basic as a steering wheel. The company’s long-term vision sees the human driver as an engineering liability that needs to be excluded from its operational systems. “We’ve been working,” Google’s Chris Urmson has said, on “vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving.”

While Google has garnered much of the publicity surrounding the development of self-driving cars, the presumed market potential is such that virtually every major auto manufacturer also has an SD car project under way. Daimler, for instance, is rushing to market with a semi-autonomous over-the-road truck — a precursor to the fully driverless vehicles of the future.

Although SD development is advancing rapidly, society has yet to seriously grapple with its consequences, including issues of consumer safety and personal liability. Beyond these policy-level considerations, SD technology poses more far-reaching and fundamental conundrums. The widespread belief that SD cars and other autonomous technologies are both inevitable and beneficial provides a window into the broader set of assumptions that dominate our present. It also illuminates how those same assumptions shield us from understanding what is truly happening to our world.

Losing our ability to make tech value judgments

The move to embrace SD cars (and other autonomous technologies) reveals a widely held premise that technology simply happens to us, and we must acquiesce to it. In this worldview, technology leads cultural development, and society trails behind, sorting out the particulars as it can. This has led, for instance, to a rush to mainstream drone aircraft, without any hard examination of the safety, privacy and liability trade-offs that the technology has wrought. The FAA has chronicled scores of near-misses between drones and commercial airliners, including one near-catastrophe over Tallahassee, Florida, in 2014. Despite this, the agency was tasked by Congress (after heavy industry lobbying) to implement rules for widespread commercial adoption as quickly as possible.

Article continues after advertisement

Like drones, SD cars may be thrust into mainstream usage along a similar path, without sufficient scrutiny of their many possible liabilities. These liabilities include the potential for hackers to remotely commandeer these Internet-connected vehicles, or to strip them of sensitive user data. Such threats are not theoretical. In a July article, Andy Greenberg of WIRED magazine demonstrated how a net-enabled Jeep Cherokee could be accessed from a laptop computer, to the point where the vehicle’s air conditioning, wipers and transmission were all compromised and controlled.

Similarly, the vulnerability of net-connected financial transaction systems has been well documented, and examples of security breaches continue to accrue in both the public and private sectors alike. Despite this, our society has not rejected such systems, and instead appears to be doubling-down on their use, with new electronic payment modalities coming online at a blistering pace. All of these trends illustrate a growing societal inability to make discerning judgments about the value and ramifications of the technological platforms that are being heaved at us. In this, SD cars are but the latest example of an accelerating trend.

Diminishing human skill and control

The going assumption that all technology is inevitable (and must be widely adopted) masks the trade-offs in individual autonomy and skill-development that are being made as increasingly automated technology is thrust upon us. We can look to Nicholas Carr’s 2014 book “The Glass Cage” for an in-depth examination of the impact of automation on human society, and the dangers of losing manual dexterity and cognitive development to automated processes. From spell-check degrading memorized language capabilities to (in one sobering incident) airline pilots who were unable to take manual control of an airliner after the auto-pilot disconnected, Carr chronicles the dangers of humanity sinking into an automated technological cocoon.

Of equal seriousness is the issue of reducing human agency, in addition to the loss of human skills. The conceit of automated technology is that it will free users to perform other tasks, and to better use their time. The reality is that those users will have to give up privacy and individual control in the exchange. For instance, SD cars would — by necessity — be linked to detailed databases through Internet connectivity, allowing their on-board computers to take advantage of repositories of driving scenarios, maps, road conditions and so forth. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication would place the cars in constant communication with other nearby “smart” vehicles.” Control, then, would flow not from the driver of the vehicle acting on his or her own volition, but from a corporate-owned network that would operate the vehicle, gather user data and archive the results for future “optimization.” For the benefit of being able to wrap up the day’s work while commuting, the resulting trade-off would be the ceding of anonymity and personal agency to a distant corporate entity. With the advent of consumer robotics and digital assistants, even greater trade-offs are in the offing.

There was a time when such trade-offs would have been un-recognizable to American culture — from the colonial settlers to the free-ranging beatniks of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Since then, we have undergone a precipitous cultural shift, from an active society that strove to overcome significant obstacles in the real world, to an increasingly passive one that turns to technological intermediaries to conduct its affairs. The result has been a slow degradation of our vigor and skills.

The automation of daily life is an emerging phenomenon that is running parallel to the increasing automation of the workplace. As marketable skills are lost to smart machines (even skills as basic as driving a car) the economic consequences will be considerable. Today, millions of people depend on driving to make a living, including more than 3 million over-the-road truckers. Their disappearance from the salary roles will be not be insubstantial.

Individual-centric to network-centric world

SD cars have caused a stir in urban planning circles due to their anticipated impact on travel patterns and urban design. Many of the “efficiencies” of the SD concept are predicated on the idea that automotive companies will eventually stop selling cars to individuals, and will instead provide “transportation solutions” — networks of autonomous vehicles that circulate on an ongoing basis, waiting for app-based calls for service. Think of Uber, but without a human driver. (Indeed, this is exactly Uber’s long-term business strategy).

This “network-centric” shift represents a fundamental change to our nation’s economic model. The move away from the purchase of cars by individuals, to the “per-ride” use of SD vehicles owned by a centralized entity would be another step in the transformation of America from an ownership society to a rental society. This cultural change has been spurred by several macro-economic factors (including rising income disparity), and has been encouraged by the high-tech industry itself.

While the tech sector has been an active marketer of individual-sale items such as smartphones, the industry’s underlying strategy has been to leverage those devices as a way to encourage the rental of third-party services such as data-sharing plans and apps. In the business world, the tech industry has pushed cloud computer storage in lieu of the purchase of discreet hard drives for the maintenance of business data. Silicon Valley has also used the rental model to actively undercut markets for tangible goods (such as books) by making electronic versions those items available on a per-use, digital-only basis. Such a model ultimately places the terms of access squarely in the provider’s corner, allowing businesses to totally control the availability of goods and cultural artifacts, and to eliminate any after-market sales.

This approach is now bleeding over into established blue-chip industries like auto manufacturing. We can look, for instance, to General Motors, which recently adopted arguments that consumers do not actually own the cars they’ve purchased, but merely lease them, due to the presence of proprietary computer software in the cars themselves. SD-driven transportation networks would further expand upon this logic, entirely eliminating physical ownership at the individual level. Continuing to move in this direction will produce broadly felt economic consequences.

The production and sale of hard goods results in individual asset accumulation, as well as aftermarket sales and services that are widely distributed. In the automotive context, think of the broad-based economic impact of corner repair shops and family user car dealerships. Conversely, the rental model results in an accumulation of assets and a centralizing of capital by large-scale entities. For all its early talk of “democratizing” processes via the Internet, Silicon Valley has in many ways been a major driver of centralized control in our society. For instance, as Facebook has become a digital repository and delivery system for personal photographs, it has gutted the market for hard photographic goods, displacing thousands of small business photo lab jobs, while employing fewer than 10,000 people itself. It has also subjected all of its users to continuous, centralized surveillance. In this same way, SD car networks would create yet another consolidation of capital, another round of job destruction, and would impose network control in place of real individual autonomy.

Resource scarcity

Undergirding this entire discussion, of course, are questions of resources and their availability. As with the larger enterprise of industrial society, our assumptions about an ever-rising trajectory of technological progress rest upon an underlying premise that resources are limitless. 

SD technology is computer-intensive, with electronic components that would be forged from so-called “rare earth” elements (REE), including gallium, tantalum and terbium. The computer gadget-based economy that has mushroomed over the past two decades has increased the worldwide consumption of REEs in a similar, exponential pattern.

The “rarity” of rare earth elements stems from the fact that they generally occur in fairly diffuse concentrations, making commercial recovery difficult and costly. The burgeoning global demand for such materials, coupled with political factors, has already caused supply chain issues in the recent past. Since the late 1980s, China has been the dominant global producer of REEs, as it was able to bring elements to market largely without regard for environmental consequences. China’s pullback in rare earth exports in 2010 caused prices to spike worldwide, and put the question of REE scarcity squarely on the table. In his 2012 book “The Race For What’s Left,” author Michael Klare chronicled the difficulties of extracting the world’s known REEs, noting that in addition to being naturally diffuse, the elements are frequently bundled up with radioactive isotopes such as uranium, thus requiring costly mitigation and disposal as part of the mining process.

Replacing much of the first world’s vehicle fleet with SD cars, on top of the burgeoning use of computing power in the “Internet of Things” and omnipresent portable electronics may be economically impossible at some point, given the finite amounts of commercially extractable REEs. Ultimately, society will be forced to make resource-based choices about computerizing and automating aspects of our daily life — particularly when the same pool of REE resources are required for other, competing industrial uses that are also on an upward trajectory. These include the use of REEs in energy efficient and “green” technologies, such as wind turbines, LED lighting, and hybrid cars.

While the transition to autonomous technology will have significant cultural and economic impacts, the real-world resource constraints that accompany our society’s push into the “frictionless” future of smart machines may be the factor that matters most in the end.

The future depends on ourselves, not on our machines

All told, human beings have driving motorized vehicles for over 100 years, and have piloted horse-drawn equipment for centuries more. Now, however, Silicon Valley executives tell us that such activities are far too dangerous for people, and should be ceded to smart machines for our own good. In the view of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, cars with human drivers may eventually be made illegal because of human fallibility.

The tech industry’s push for an automatic future for cars is symptomatic of its broader attempt to create a world where humans are increasingly “designed out” of the processes that run our society — everything from stocking shelves to financial trading. Technical refinement and complexity, we are told, can rise above imperfect human activity, and can improve our ailing world by removing us from its management.

Such an overly complex future is not a solution, however, but a trap — culturally damaging in the short term, and materially untenable in the long term. It is a trap that can only be avoided by awakening from our machine-induced slumber and viewing ourselves — and our world — anew.

Matt Ehling is a St. Paul-based writer and media producer who is active in government transparency and accountability efforts.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at