Self-driving cars and the shifting definition of freedom

AS LUCK and serendipity would have it, we have not only one but two great pieces in this week’s issue about self-driving cars.

Our urbanism columnist Jason Combs has written a compelling piece from the point of view of someone initially skeptical of the concept who has come to (almost) fully embrace it.

Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams, in his regular syndicated column, explains some of the reservations about self-driving cars and some of the challenges facing its widespread adoption and acceptance.

Having these two columns in the same issue is coincidental, but then again maybe not so much: Self-driving cars are a topic on a lot of minds these days, and the idea is definitely a conversation (or argument) starter, that’s for sure.

One of the great things about Connect Savannah is we have a wide range of viewpoints here, some of which conflict with each other. That’s a feature, not a bug.

A core mission of the paper is to provide a venue for different viewpoints, ones you may not typically hear in the mainstream, or ones you may not come across in your possibly tightly curated Facebook feed.

I sometimes enjoy good-natured debates with our own writers about issues, and this is one of them.

I certainly don’t have the urban planning and design credentials of Jason, nor the research staff available to Cecil. I tend to approach these things from more of a historical, cultural, and political basis.

My initial, kneejerk take was that self-driving cars are a grossly unrealistic form of corporate/government overreach, one that inevitably would be used to control, track, and manipulate citizens into being ever more compliant members of a sort of soft-totalitarian, technocratic hive mind, our heads buried in our iPhones, frantically liking social media posts while robots do all the important work.

A self-driving car means a tracked car, with all your movements, whether for work or for pleasure or for no particular reason at all, becoming part of a record.

And how long before the government says, oops, looks like you owe some parking tickets, or back taxes, or got flagged on Facebook. We won’t let any self-driving cars start for you today.

But the simple truth is that in an age of drone warfare, AI, algorithms, the sharing economy, and rapidly expanding wireless/cloud connectivity — not to mention cheaper global fuel prices in order to make all that electricity affordable in the first place — self-driving cars aren’t unrealistic at all. That is actually one of the weakest arguments against them.

A stronger argument against self-driving cars, and the ride-sharing economy itself, might be that they might act as a steroid rather than as a remedy for overreliance on automobiles — further marginalizing efforts to improve public transportation and alternative transportation, like bicycles.

But that is a question for more learned minds than mine.

Personally, the more I look at it, the more I see that the real issue is about differing concepts about what freedom itself means. That to me is the core debate.

More and more, I’m finding that younger generations tend to find security and a sense of freedom in what an older generation, like mine, would consider a stifling and insulting lack of freedom and respect.

Both points of view are understandable.

When I learned how to drive, cars were just plain faster and the roads, frankly, were much less crowded. Driving was a real pleasure, and to this day it’s an activity I really enjoy.

The concept of public transportation wasn’t popular then outside a small handful of major metro areas. Some of that resistance was political and cultural, i.e. the push to spread outward into the suburbs ran counter to the idea of urban density.

But some of it was simply practical: There was more room on the roads, because there were fewer people. The population of the earth has doubled just in my own lifetime.

However, in an ever more urbanizing America, as the phenomenon of “White Flight” reverses itself and investment returns to city centers all over the U.S., automotive congestion has reached critical mass in the places where people most want to live.

Public transportation and ride-sharing are now not only desired politically by a larger and larger group of people, they are becoming more practical solutions than packing people onto roads which in many cases can’t be widened any further.

When my friends and I turned 16, that very day, we all insisted on getting our driver’s licenses first thing in the morning and zooming off by ourselves and with friends everywhere, as soon as humanly possible.

(Often, we even drove cars with — gasp! — manual transmissions. Oh, the humanity!)

Nowadays it’s a standard joke among parents that pushing their teenagers to go get their driver’s license is like pulling teeth. They just don’t care about it.

Millennials, quite simply, for the most part just don’t like cars very much, nor do many of them like to drive. It’s not a priority. A stick shift seems like a medieval torture device or inexplicable ancient mystery to them.

And in their own context, that is as understandable as people in prior generations finding a sense of freedom in driving on the open road, in their own car, answerable to no one. (Bruce Springsteen built an entire career writing songs about that.)

There is freedom in firing up a fast car, or even a not-so-fast car, and just taking to the road and being your own boss — a feeling you might not have in many other parts of your life.

Then again, there’s also very real freedom in tapping on Uber or Lyft — or soon enough, summoning a shareable self-driving vehicle — and having your ride show up 60 seconds later to take you wherever you need to go, without you having to pay for insurance, or maintenance, or new tires, or gas, or killing someone on the road because you’re over the legal limit.

That’s a form of freedom too, and in the end every generation gets to determine what freedom means to them, for better or worse.


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