Though inevitable, driverless cars raise serious concerns

You’ve probably heard much in the news lately about Google’s driverless cars. The souped-up Lexus cars look harmless enough at first glance—normal cars with a fancy dash­board in the front, Google logo on the side, and spinning camera up on the car’s roof.

I got to see one parked at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View this past summer.

They’ve been the talk of the town, whether it concerns Uber’s plan to buy thousands for their fleet, or that one Google driverless car that was pulled over for driving too slowly and calmly on a busy California road.

Right now they seem like experimental nov­elties in the Bay Area, a far cry from Vassar’s campus, but this technology is closer than you think.

Don’t believe those that tell you it’s impos­sible for driverless cars to become common­place. Already, many cars on the road take ad­vantage of semi-autonomous technology.

Just a few weeks ago, Tesla turned on semi-autonomous driving technology in thou­sands of its later model cars, without a single piece of new hardware.

The software was updated to handle all sorts of driving conditions, including a busy New York City street. In dozens of other high-end model cars, you can use semi-autonomous technology to parallel park, assist when chang­ing lanes and even improve your already-exist­ing cruise control functionality for driving on highways.

In public transit, many of us have experi­enced the autonomous People Movers at JFK International Airport, or perhaps any one of the driverless lines on the Paris Metro.

Now the London Underground and New York MTA are considering a plan for driver­less operations. This is all just the beginning of autonomous driving technology, and quickly arriving to consumers.

For those that think governments will stop these cars from hitting the road, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. In fact, one need only look at a similar time in history where technology trumped policy.

NPR had a fascinating look at this transition. In a radio episode from “Planet Money,” Steve Henn looked back at the turn of the 20th centu­ry, back when elevators still needed operators.

Henn notes, “So they added doors with safe­ty bumpers, automatic stopping. And eventual­ly, they created a driverless elevator. And this was in 1900. This was amazing. It was the Goo­gle car of its era. And people hated it.” (NPR, “Remembering When Driverless Elevators Drew Skepticism,” 07.31.15).

If you lived in Raymond like me, you’re all too aware of this little piece of history. Henn noted that elevators drew a ton of criticism from governments, operators and passengers alike.

At first, the elevators, much like Google’s driverless cars, showed you the machinery as it would lift you from one floor to the next.

NPR goes on to explain how we shifted into accepting driverless elevators, so you should definitely listen to the podcast if you’re inter­ested in that.

As for driverless cars, we need to acknowl­edge and realize what kind of economic shift we’re on the verge of.

In a matter of years, we’ll see a massive shift in the millions of people who work in trans­port. I’m talking about more than just the taxi drivers and Uber drivers you’ll hail after a long night in New York.

People forget about all the truck drivers, liv­ery operators, delivery drivers, forklift drivers and countless laborers who spend their days in front of a steering wheel. According to the Bu­reau for Labor Statistics, there’s more than 10 million people in the United States who work in such transport roles.

It’s astonishing and mind-boggling to won­der just how these people are going to find employment once we see autonomous driving come into full swing.

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the future of driverless cars. I think it’s an imminent change.

There’s no reason to try and politically or economically delay its arrival. The same was said and done about the Industrial Revolution as a whole too.

At the turn of the 20th century, countless summer builders spent their winters shovel­ing snow in cities like Chicago, New York and Boston.

When snowblowers started throwing snow from the streets at a pace unlike any man, an­gry workers were known to throw crowbars to jam and disrupt the snowblowers.

The same was said and done when automo­biles replaced horse-drawn carriages, and so on. We can trace every major technological innovation to its predecessor, and the people who were made unemployed by its arrival.

What we need to be doing is not criticizing or blaming those displaced by the evolution of our technology.

It’s our obligation, as a society, to ensure ev­eryone can shift into a new field and form of labor and have a better means than their par­ents had.

In addition to this, we need to acknowledge what technology inherently does: Jobs that we once needed humans to do are replaced by ma­chines.

Frankly, an entire half of our government fails to realize this. They think what’s at the core of our lives is a nation that works more than almost any other nation in Western Eu­rope.

We’re a nation that refuses to take time off, to work late, long hours, and deny ourselves paid family leave.

Societally, an entire half of our American government more or less admits and acknowl­edges this as a core tenant, rather than increase social services.

Of course, this is a tangent from driverless cars, but what I stand by is that we gain nothing by trying to delay the inevitable transition to a world powered by more driverless cars, mean­ing less accidents, less traffic, and more time spent doing the things we enjoy.

We can’t forget the millions who will be im­pacted negatively by this shift, as much as we’ll point to the millions who will benefit from faster, safer driving.

It’s on us to realize this as soon as possible, as we’re all students on the cusp of this next leap in technology. I can’t wait until we think about driverless cars just as we think about elevators today—well except for those in Ray­mond.

—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major

One Comment

  1. HI Joshua. Last week JPods setup a demo of our network of “horizontal elevators” at Vassar and gave a presentation on JPods. There will be a huge market for autonomous cars in the future, but my guess is they will be radically short range vehices.

    Safety is a relatively minor problem of the automobile. The huge problems is the energy required to move a ton to move a person. Resource deletion (US Peak Oil was in 1970), oil-wars since 1990, Climate Change, national debt increasing in tandem with oil imports since US Peak Oil, oil-dollar funded terrorism are Civilization Killer.

    Mobility should be measured by value to the traveler and energy consumed per unit of economic work (passenger-mile or ton-mile per gallon). Driverless cars help with value to traveler but completely fail to make sustainable the energy to power the networks.

    We have the JPods vehicles in a factory in Poughkeepsie. Let me know if you would like to write about solar-powered mobility networks.

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