Control Freaks

Mar 6, 2011, 8:49 AM, Posted by

Who’s driving in this relationship anyway—us or them? 

I distinctly remember my 1970’s fourth grade summer Weekly Reader (showing my age) that described a not too distant future when self-driving electric pod cars would transport human passengers, attaching on and off highways of magnetic strips. They’d be safe, clean and efficient—because the people of the future would value those attributes.  That vision, of course, hasn’t materialized. (Yet?).  

Last week, though, at TED2011with Google’s self-driving cars we got a glimpse of a new emerging potential reality. That potential is definitely more tangible and recognizable than my Weekly Reader vision—better in some ways—certainly more prosaic and believable. In fact, I can attest that it is indeed right here, right now.  This just might be where things get pretty interesting—and disconcerting.

At TED, steady lines of politely waiting, very curious “blue jean-eratti” piled into a souped up Toyota Prius to go-kart around a parking lot for a few minutes.  Those human pioneers eagerly turned over the driving controls completely to the car computer—putting their safety and lives in its hands.  No big deal, right?  I took some Droid video during my test—see what you think. 

When our turn came, three of us along with a Google engineer jumped into the banal, familiar interior environment of a Prius.  The Google driver pulled around to the starting point, then announced that he was turning over control to the car and released the steering wheel.  That’s when the familiar turned, well, alien.  The car, who (and I mean who) had been patiently waiting its turn, expertly took the reins—and literally peeled out across the lot, weaving through and around the orange cone course.  We all laughed and yelled spontaneously with delight and, admittedly, some nervousness—watching the wheel turn by itself—listening to the tires screech, feeling the acceleration and braking—all without human intervention.  Our anxiety was both for our immediate safety—wanting to believe that the computer knew what it was doing—could see its way around the course.  But there was something else too.  This new experience may have very big implications—at least that seemed to be the consensus of the folks who waited in line with me.  It now seems almost inevitable—just a matter of time.  How long will it actually be before we begin to mostly or even entirely turn over the driving task to the machines?  Five years?  Ten?  Sooner?

But there’s more.  Last weekend in her New York Times column, Maureen Dowd ("Have You Driven a Smartphone Lately?" ) turned her critical wit on the new 2011 Ford bells and whistles computer dashboard.  She asserted that the automaker was irresponsibly creating essentially a public menacing, driver distracting smartphone on wheels.  At TED this week, Bill Ford got to present a different view.  He described a disastrous, pending, perpetual global traffic gridlock—as the sheer number of cars grows exponentially across a rapidly developing world—unless we design our way out of that particular scenario. Ford’s design focus is based on a car oriented future, obviously.  Some criticized that view.  He also seemed to imply that the new powerful onboard computer dashboards are easing drivers toward a time when those pervasive computers not only entertain but also pilot—freeing the driver and passengers to work and play while traveling.  The smart cars will also soon communicate with other cars and devise the smartest, safest, fastest routes to and from destinations—and, importantly, avoid pedestrians and cyclists along the way.  Obviously, Dowd’s safety points resonate.  Distracted driving hurts and kills thousands annually—it’s an immediate and terrifying public health challenge.  Technology that potentially promotes distraction is dangerous.  Ideally, our advances would build toward the future emphasizing safety first—before entertainment and convenience.  If only. 

In any event, if there was any doubt about the rapidly proliferating power and real world potential of self driving technology, the Google demo just completely snuffed that.  And, to my initial point, that’s more than a little disconcerting.  Like many of you no doubt, I’m a horrible back seat driver.  I did, luckily, survive my brief test drive—er, ride—into the future.  Before last week, as much as I love my Droid and other gadgets (and I do), there’s likely no way I’d have said we’re ready to turn over the wheel to those gadgets.  Now, honestly, I’m not so sure.  In fact, that transfer may come soon—very soon, ready or not.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.