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The motorists are fighting back We are being lured into a state of passivity

(Once Upon A Time In Hollywood)


October 4, 2023   9 mins

What happened when Matthew Crawford, a lifelong advocate of the joys of driving and author of Why We Drive, took a ride in one of San Francisco’s driverless cars? He sounded the alarm.

Last month, he joined Freddie Sayers in Oakland to talk about the global war on motorists, the beauty of tinkering, and Silicon Valley’s threat to human freedom. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Freddie Sayers: A few years ago, you published a book called Why We Drive — and in many ways, you were ahead of the times, because drivers all over the world are now pretty angry. In London, there appears to be a full-on “war on motorists”: with a new 20mph speed limit, and an Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). This motorist fury has spread to the Netherlands, to Spain, and to the truckers in Canada. It feels like drivers are forming some sort of coalition.

Matthew Crawford: You could also mention the gilets jaunes in France. And there have been protests about the German autobahn. The Germans have a saying that translates as “free driving for free citizens”. Then you also had this big fight between the London taxi drivers and Uber. It does seem like people’s attitudes towards driving have become a bit prickly, as though the political authorities somehow lack legitimacy. A lot of populist energy has become focused on the automobile.

FS: Quite often this is framed as a class thing. Drivers are presented as people who probably have all sorts of unsavoury political views and therefore if life becomes more inconvenient for them, it’s probably a shift in the right direction. But your book goes deeper than that: you suggest that the action of driving is existentially important.

MC: I like to start with the skateboard, or the bicycle: simple implements that extend and transform our native bodily powers. A bicycle becomes almost like a prosthetic, an extension of your body, fully integrated into your bodily habitation of the world. And I think something similar could be said of cars, especially relatively primitive and lighter vehicles, where there’s a lot of feedback from the road. A kind of directness of control. That’s why a lot of people get quite attached to the experience of driving. Nietzsche said, “joy is the feeling of your power increasing”, and I think that you can understand that not as a scary doctrine about power-seeking, but just as an insight into how some technologies seem to extend us out into the world in ways that are deeply pleasurable.

 

FS: So we’re not talking about political power increasing? It’s more of a sense of being alive?

MC: The absence of remote control is really a key part of that. The idea of driverless cars — the sense of being passively carried around — triggers a kind of revulsion about being a passenger. There are all kinds of dystopian movies where driverless cars feature and one of my favourites is WALL-E, where you have these grotesquely fat humanoid beings being ferried around in their hovering cars, slurping from their cupholders, and watching their screens with some sort of entertainment piped in from afar — their faces beaming with a sort of opiate pleasure. They seem to be slackened and completely safe, and somehow less than human. I think that’s a heightened or exaggerated picture of what disturbs us about this.

FS: And, dare I say it, unmanly? The passenger character staring at the screen is the opposite of a strong person using a machine.

MC: Yes, or even genderless. A sort of gender blob. I guess there is a kind of masculine ideal of self-reliance, certainly in America — and just moving about the world by the exercise of your own powers appeals to that. So even using GPS, which I admittedly use all the time, forces you to turn your brain off, and there’s a kind of passivity and dependence to that. And I think the push for driverless cars is an instance of this wider pattern. For the sake of convenience, and in the name of safety, we’re lured further into passivity and dependence.

FS: There’s a line that you write about beyond which technology stops enhancing life: instead of making you more powerful, it starts to make you more dependent. Where do you draw this line in the case of cars?

MC: I think intelligibility is a crucial thing. Can you, by inspection at least, imagine how the thing works? Does it invite your intervention? Does it invite the effort to understand it? Or is it completely opaque like the shimmering obelisk at the beginning of the film 2001 that the humanoids are all entranced by? There’s a deep intellectual pleasure in being a master of your own stuff, in taking things apart and trying to understand them. Tinkering is a kind of quasi-philosophic impulse.

The other feature that really rubs a lot of people the wrong way is this idea of remote control. It’s not so much that it’s digital. Conceivably, you could become an expert coder in the various software systems that run the car. But I think what people don’t want is a sense that they’re somehow geared into this bureaucratic machine that stands behind the technology.

FS: There’s also a practical sense that people want to have a car that works on its own, independent of any external network being operational.

MC: Right, and that cannot be disabled remotely. The trucker protests in Canada were mercilessly crushed by seizing the bank accounts of people who contributed money to the movement. Shortly after, the Canadians took steps to mandate that all trucks be remotely shut-off-able. So you can see that there’s a political taste for preventing any such occurrence again. This is one of those instances where I think a lot of Western leaders look to China enviously as a control society. And given the metastasising systems of surveillance and control in our own society, the car stands out as a last reserve of some kind of capacity to stand alone.

FS: More worryingly, electric and driverless cars can in theory be turned off or driven into each other by central command; in a wartime or crisis scenario, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that this could be dangerous.

MC: At least in the US, we don’t have nearly the electrical grid that you would need to charge all these cars, according to the vision being laid forth. And of course, building that infrastructure isn’t glamorous, politically. The whole green energy mandate is this massive diversion of investment to party-aligned actors that will tend towards energy poverty, which will hurt the working and middle classes. And all this is part of a larger phenomenon of the party-state capturing transportation and energy policy.

FS: Do you think this anxiety is particularly strong in America?

MC: Yeah, when shit gets real, you’re going to want to hit the road and get the hell out of Dodge, right?

FS: This leads us to the question of what we should do about it, given that these technologies are already everywhere. What would a practical rebellion look like? How can we resist without simply being Luddite or reactionary?

MC: The first thing to notice is the feeling of futility that people have about putting up any kind of resistance. In San Francisco, you have street guerrillas putting cones on driverless cars to paralyse them. And you have quite a few cases of driverless cars impeding emergency vehicles because they stall out and need to be rebooted. Despite this, earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved to have driverless vehicles on the streets of San Francisco in large numbers.

It turns out that one of the four City commissioners is the former general counsel for Cruise: the equivalent of General Motors for self-driving cars. Hovering in the background here is this sense of a “corporatocracy”, where the will of citizens really doesn’t come into play. And, in fact, when Pew polls people about their attitudes toward driverless cars, the majority of them are not interested. They’re suspicious of it; they’d prefer to drive themselves. So this is not in response to consumer demand: you might say it’s a kind of for-profit social engineering.

FS: Perhaps also that faith in technology is central to an elite idea of progress? If you are on the wrong side of it, you are seen as a bad person. 

MC: It’s an expensive solution to a non-problem. Humans are actually pretty good at driving. This is merely another case of a transfer of wealth: Silicon Valley trying to grab profits from Detroit; Waymo versus Ford. So, yes, there’s always a narrative of progress.

FS: What do you say to the counter argument: that while some people might enjoy driving, many people don’t. Driverless and convenient electric cars should open up hours in which we can be more creative, fulfilled, and productive?

MC: Sure, I feel the force of those arguments. I’m sure there are occasions where I would totally want the option of a driverless car. One of the difficulties is when autonomous cars share the road with human drivers: that has turned out to be a far harder engineering challenge than was anticipated a few years ago. We’ve arrived at the point now where in San Francisco, at night, when traffic is light, they’re allowing driverless cars. But there’s still a lot of breezy talk about outlawing human drivers in order to make the road more hospitable to driverless cars.

FS: You can imagine that being a serious proposal in a small number of years.

MC: What would you have then? You’d have the infrastructure of a city made hospitable to automation, including driverless cars; you’d have an urban operating system that’s essentially designed and installed by some cartel of tech firms — and you can be pretty sure they would not be amenable to democratic processes. Nor would the code be accessible to inspection. This is all very proprietary: it has to be because that’s what makes the “smart city” the next trillion-dollar frontier.

FS: And if you are considered transgressive by that private company, you won’t be able to get around. 

MC: You can imagine terms of service that have all kinds of stipulations. And you can view this development as part of a long arc of high modernist urban planning that goes way back. Yet this aspiration to remake the city often creates model cities that nobody wants to live in because the human element is somehow squashed. The ethnographer Jane Jacobs wrote a beautiful book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she shows how a street works at a fine grain level as a social place. She describes how neighbourhoods get vacated by these planning schemes that are hatched from on high and render the city vacuous. I think we should revisit some of these critiques of modernist urban planning, by way of trying to get a handle on what the tech firms are up to with the smart city and driverless car.

FS: I think perhaps we accepted too readily this idea that not having to drive would be liberating. And this points to a larger question about technology: is convenience always better? If you’re liberated from the more fundamental, supposedly mundane aspects of living — feeding yourself, moving around, sorting your car out — is your life necessarily going to improve? 

MC: If you go far enough down that road, the whole world begins to look like one big assisted-living facility. There’s a psychologist named Kelly Lambert, who’s done some interesting stuff on what she calls effort-driven rewards. She works with rats, but the idea is that we’ve evolved to secure our own basic physical existence, and when you make everything effortless, people become anxious and depressed. And of course, a lot of that leisure time will be filled with entertainments that plug us into the hive mind. Americans in particular don’t really know how to do true leisure — a Sabbath, a time of repose. We tend to fill up everything.

FS: Do you advocate trying to resist the relentless technological advance by living more simply? Some people are trying to feed their spirit by “unplugging” and trying to be more connected to the earth, more connected to nature?

MC: Well, this is the perennial question, isn’t it? That sort of romantic back-to-the-land or back-to-nature revolt against not just technology but technocracy — the entwining of these systems. People do want to escape it; to re-humanise themselves. I guess for some people, it’s back to the land — land, of course, is scarce and expensive — for some people, I think it’s tinkering and trying to get a handle on their own material existence and become self-reliant in various ways. We have people homeschooling, just trying to unplug from what feels like a voracious borg that feeds on individual agency.

FS: Is there a good version of that and a scary version, do you think? For some people it seems that their answer is to burn it all down, to destroy the “borg”, which starts to sound violent?

MC: I’m thinking of Fight Club, is that what you’re thinking of?

FS: More that if there are enough people who feel alienated by technology — and by this supposedly sophisticated way of living — they are going to come with pitchforks and try to destroy it. Do you think we should worry about that?

MC: I don’t see much prospect of the pitchforks coming out — we’re too well entertained. A whole other type of technology is going to enthral us. Through a combination of virtual reality and AI, I imagine we’ll be sucked into worlds that are not real. What I mean by that is that they are constructed worlds: constructed for profit, and engineered from afar. They will probably offer us some simulacrum of agency: I’m sure there’s a menu of different options for action within them. Maybe they respond to us; they will flatter us with a sense of mastery, perhaps. But the thing about real reality is that it surprises us. It is inexhaustibly rich; it can’t be represented to completion. It contains mystery. I say that both as a former physics guy, and as someone with intuitions that there’s a created order that has a benevolence to it, and some elements that aren’t fully graspable and masterable by us, and that I think of as a source of renewal. When you put yourself in nature or even in the built environment, the human environment, there’s always scope for serendipity and surprise, and renewing your sense of wonder in the world.

FS: How do we defend that? What are the micro rebellions that we can try to unplug? You talk about tinkering with your car. What should someone in a city do? 

MC: Every time we meet face-to-face as we’re doing right now, we’re engaged in the permanent human possibility, encountering one another in a real way. And I think that will always be available to us. We often get a little too doomerish about the borg, especially when the ordinary pleasures of existence and of sociality remain available to us. We have to throw ourselves into that with courage and hope.

FS: Maybe this is finally a political fight that’s worth engaging in. Perhaps motorists should defend their right to drive whatever cars they want — and maybe, they’ll win. 

MC: Yeah, Sign me up. We hereby inaugurate the freedom to drive movement.


Matthew B Crawford writes the substack Archedelia


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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

The preoccupation of the ruling elite with restricting cars underscores their disconnect with the people they serve. They can walk, bike or take the subway to their job 10 blocks away, but that’s not possible for people outside the downtown core. Most people need an inexpensive, reliable, independent form of transportation.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

In the UK the people in Government can use the transport systems in London – metros, railways, light railways, buses, taxis, bike hire. In a large city with plenty of people travelling it makes sense to promote public transport. Politicians assume these facilities are common elsewhere.
But outside London cities normally have fewer and less frequent options for public transport and villages just a few miles outside the city may have no public transport available at all.
Logically people who live in a city but use private transport should pay a congestion charge for they have alternative means of travel…. and people who live outside the city and must use private transport should be exempt. Strangely the inverse seems to hold.

Last edited 8 months ago by AC Harper
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Living in London, these are the reasons I had to use a car:
– go to the airport or tube station (when in a rush to catch a train or with luggage)
– Going to the hospital
– Dropping off daughter to school or activities
– Rushing home to pick up daughter ( travel time by car well below one hour, public transport 1.5 hours)

Remind me, which of these are substitutable by a cycle or train?

And remember, even in London, where car traffic is bad and with extensive public transport, using a car often halves the time spent on travelling. Goes without saying, even worse outside.

And, of course, while the beloved mayor is openly hostile to car drivers, London has also cut back on public transport – and in any case trains are on strike every few weeks.

Last edited 8 months ago by Samir Iker
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

These are all convenient – other than the hospital. While you may enjoy using a car for these reasons, many others in the downtown core won’t. For those farther removed, they literally could not exist without it.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Can’t disagree that those others need cars even more, and are criminally neglected by planners and politicians.
But that’s just the point, even for us city folk, who are much better placed, it’s tough and not just an inconvenience not to be able to use cars.
For instance, if I have to pick up the daughter without using a car, the extra 30-45 mins using public transport means leaving that important late office meeting or being late to pick her up. Not ideal, either way.

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Quite so. But how many MPs and senior Civil Service managers have direct childcare responsibilities? Not many I’d guess – so your concerns however justified are not their concerns.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

My car is presently having work done in the garage, preventing me from visiting my elderly mother and stepfather.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago

What is the future of driverless cars? It’s hard to say. Predictions about the future are best left to grifters and charlatans (and Elon Musk), and not treated seriously. We should keep our options open instead of making huge and risky bets on how the future is going to turn out.
That’s a lesson few people have learned. So far the driverless car industry has seen the most investment with no return in history. Money has poured by the billions of dollars into the industry and even the revenues from the technology are a tiny trickle, with profits only a dream for the far future.
Not smart. Not smart at all.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I suggest you educate yourself about progress in machine intelligence. It has started to become exponential in the past 2 years and fully autonomous driving is likely to be available within 10 years

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago

I live and work in Silicon Valley and one of the things I work on is computer-driven cars, including holding a patent on an aspect of the technology.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning have progressed, but the progress has been far from exponential. The hype surpasses the reality. No one can predict when and to what extent computer-driven cars will be feasible. We can only wait and see what happens.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

“I live and work in Silicon Valley and one of the things I work on is computer-driven cars, including holding a patent on an aspect of the technology.”
No you don’t.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago

Yes, I do. Don’t be fooled by the fact that you can’t find my patent under the name Carlos Danger. That’s not my real name.

G K
G K
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

That’s the permanent troll, it occupies the UnHerd comments section. Just a minor nuisance

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

No, you don’t.
Your moronic comments are not those of someone who has any knowledge of AI or any other form of tech. You obviously don’t have a clue.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

By that logic – don’t you have some bins to collect?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Don’t try to understand, Dave. Way above your pay grade. Assuming you have a job which is being pretty generous of me!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
8 months ago

What are the specifics that you disagree with?
Get to the specifics, and make counter-arguments. That is how people above the age of 16 usually try to engage with ideas or arguments.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago

Carlos made a point about wasted investment on driverless cars; so far.
Problem is not whether driverless cars will be available within 10 years but whether people should be forced to use them because of political decisions taken without democratic oversight.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

“It turns out that one of the four City commissioners is the former general counsel for Cruise: the equivalent of General Motors for self-driving cars.”
Doesn’t that speak volumes.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

The point about autonomy while driving also touches on the important issues of safety, and solitude. In a car, there are lots of social interactions that you are free from, but which can be annoying or incredibly scary on public transport. Travelling alone at night, many people feel safer in a mobile metal box with the ability to contact others or move away from the scaries and oddballs. And, although I never drive purely for pleasure, there are times when I just enjoy driving somewhere because it gets me a few minutes or hours of being alone.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
8 months ago

Every politician who advocates reducing access to cars and road use should be forced to try to live their normal life in a rural county or in the suburbs for at least a month. Perhaps then they may start to understand the point of view of the majority of the population.

James Kirk
James Kirk
8 months ago

UK towns evolved in the horse drawn era. Driverless cars would need to be stored, charged and maintained out of town, the stables and mews long converted to human occupation. It may relieve the narrow streets of cold idle parked up cars, unused 90% of the time but there would still be traffic jams on the M25, M60 and A1 North at peak times and bank holidays. And don’t forget the hackers. Crime moves apace.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
8 months ago

‘ There are all kinds of dystopian movies where driverless cars feature and one of my favourites is WALL-E, where you have these grotesquely fat humanoid beings being ferried around in their hovering cars, slurping from their cupholders, and watching their screens with some sort of entertainment piped in from afar — their faces beaming with a sort of opiate pleasure. ‘

Matt has clearly never seen car after car stuck in traffic in South London of a morning, the populace gawping into their smartphones as they knock back their Starbucks
.

Julian Newman
Julian Newman
8 months ago

Most of the comments up to now ignore the most important issue highlighted by the discussion, i.e. the connection between driving, self-realisation and intelligibility.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

I agree. Sadly, the generations born prior to c.1990 may be the last to understand the idea of driving as self-realisation.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

If driving is how you achieve self-realization then I feel very sorry for you and the incredibly sad lives you must lead.

Last edited 8 months ago by Champagne Socialist
Alabama Slamma
Alabama Slamma
8 months ago

What Crawford says about the experience of “feeling the road” is what you get with a sports car. I didn’t realize it until I bought one, and experienced the feeling of the car being an extension of one’s own body. It is said of Formula 1 cars and Indycars that the driver does not get in the car; rather, the driver puts the car on.
As far as cities banning automobiles: once they have accomplished this, don’t think for a minute that other forms of mechanical transport won’t be targeted next. I recall reading a Popular Science article from an issue in the late 1960s, about the “utopian” city of the future. A main point in the description was the proud boast that the average citizen will be outside of their own neighborhood only twice in their lives: once when they are born and brought home from the hospital, and once when their body is taken to the cemetery. Transportation of any form would be strictly limited to VIPs.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
8 months ago

Fascinating and — obviously — about so much more than driverless cars. Crawford sounds here like both poet and prophet: “A whole other type of technology is going to enthral us. … (Constructed worlds) will probably offer us some simulacrum of agency … maybe they respond to us; they will flatter us with a sense of mastery, perhaps. But the thing about real reality is that it surprises us. It is inexhaustibly rich; it can’t be represented to completion. It contains mystery.”
It seems to me that — if we are to be mentally healthy individuals and a capable, engaged species — our default allegiance must be to inexhaustibly rich reality, not these ever-evolving and distracting technologies. We need to feel actual agency and involvement, not representations.
Thanks so much for this interview.

Last edited 8 months ago by Colorado UnHerd
Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago

You make a perceptive comment. Matthew Crawford’s books have intrigued me since I read the first one, Shop Class as Soulcraft, almost 15 years ago. The World Beyond Your Head was good too, and Why We Drive was right on point with what I was researching at the time. I’ve been glad to read his very occasional columns here on Unherd, too.
Matthew Crawford reminds me a bit of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and who Matthew Crawford has written about.

Last edited 8 months ago by Carlos Danger
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

My diesel ‘Panzerwagen’ is currently crossing France, and averaging 53.3 miles per gallon.

James Kirk
James Kirk
8 months ago

Wall-E was more a comment on present day overweight couch potatoes on the teat of the welfare state, the piles of over consumption round the back ignored. The symbolic ship’s captain controlled by an AI dictator programmed never to return to unpleasant reality. We need a Wall-E, assisted by an EVA. We have the cockroaches, thanks.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago

The picture at the top of this article is revealing. While most of the Clarkson wannabes who comment here will picture themselves as good looking and freewheeling tough guys like Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, cruising the LA freeways in a cool ride, listening to classic rock and picking up pretty hippie girls, the reality is that you are overweight, balding middle aged men driving to the supermarket in a Hyundai somewhere awful like Milton Keynes or Cheltenham.
Pretty comical.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Speak for yourself.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Upvote from me. Actually made me laugh. You forgot the viagra in the glove compartment though. Seriously – more like this please. Entertaining, to the point, and so much better than the silly throwaways you usually litter the comments section with.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago

Quasi-religious article.
I agree that rich, green blob wants to stop working and middle class people driving, flying, having holidays, eating meat etc.
However his other points are not very convincing.
Surely, if there was great demand for cars without electronic gizmos, someone would respond to demand.
Some, niche companies do (like Caterham) but so what?
My brother is petrol head who thinks nothing about driving 1k miles in a day across Europe.
I prefer my wine, craft beer and whisky to driving.
I can understand attraction of driving on racing circuit or rally driving.
But stuck in traffic at 20mph in London?
Surely, not having to pretend to drive is preferable.
No idea what stats say but majority of people would surely prefer not to drive in commuting scenario?
I am against imposition of self driving cars on us.
But if cars could have both steering wheel and be able to drive autonomously, what is wrong with this?
Author sounds like my hifi mates who still believe that music reply is best done on record deck.

Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
4 months ago

Anyone who works in a trade, or on the land, needs a vehicle really, because we tend to carry a load of usually heavy tools/equipment. We need a car which can be driven in remote areas with no signal or internet, and fixed easily by oneself e.g. if driving offroad. You need a van, pickup truck or Land Rover-type 4×4 to carry all your tools. So our workhorses could never be driverless or wired into the digital ether. So many white collar city-dwellers and people in government forget this.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago

I feel sorry for the incels who require a car to feel “manly”.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago

I’m quite looking forward to driverless cars personally. It means I can get drunk or have a kip (or both) and not have to worry about it.
All those ideas of speeding round long open roads on trips very rarely match reality anyway, you usually spend half your journey stuck behind a caravan doing half the speed limit while getting slowly more irate at the world

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Cabs exist. You can get drunk or have a kip (or both) now and have a drivered car take you home. And you’ll still get stuck behind a caravan on your long journey in a driverless car.
Things won’t change all that much if computers rule the road. In fact, they may get worse. Being a passive passenger is not all that fun. When my family takes long car trips now we trade off turns at the wheel, and among the four of us we always have one or two ready to take a turn driving at any time. Within limits, of course, we all like to drive. Especially since our car takes some skill to drive, with a lot of feedback from the road.
Rather than a computer taking over all driving, I’d like to see a good mixture of human and computer sharing the driving task, like there used to be with a human and horse together piloting down the road. Sometimes on tight rein with the human in charge, sometimes on loose rein with the horse given its head. Don Norman in his book The Design of Normal Things and this interviewee Matthew Crawford in his book Why We Drive talk a lot of sense about this topic.
To me, that human-computer sharing is the ideal. I would hate to climb in a car and not have any control over it. No steering wheel? No pedals? What if the car goes crazy? My mind boggles at the thought.

Last edited 8 months ago by Carlos Danger
Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Cabs are not always available and are absent in most non urban locations. Robotaxis, requiring no human labour which is a scarce commodity, could be universally available . They will also be cheaper as the removal of the labour element lowers costs and the gain will be shared between operator ( as profit) and consumer as lower prices to help build up volume in the short tern

Last edited 8 months ago by Douglas Redmayne
Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
8 months ago

It won’t work like that. Prices will stay the same (as having been established at what the market will bear) and operators will simply make more profit. The shareholder is king now.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

Its not that simple. They need to reduce prices to get people switching and their size means that their shareholders and creditors have no choice but to go along with the strategy. The shareholder is not king in mega corporations

Y Way
Y Way
8 months ago

They only need government mandates and government subsidies to get people to switch. And, I strongly suspect that is the route that will be taken.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago

Clearly not true bases on competition in taxi services in London.
Many options are much cheaper than black cabs.
Prices will not stay the same if you allow competition.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
8 months ago

Robotaxis will be like ATMs and self checkout at the supermarket. A soulless often frustrating encounter with the machine. Rigid and controlling, suffocating the human, devoid of empathy. Your smartphone dies or your ID fails the machine will ruthlessly refuse it’s service. A human will take stock of the situation and act with empathy. I’d sure not like to rely on a robotaxi in Alaska at midnight when my smartphone has just died!. Any fellow human – on the other hand – would probably help.
I’ve experienced this first hand. Credit cards failed because I had not alerted bank I was going abroad. I could not top up Skype to make phone call and had no cash. Could not make phone call with existing US service provider either. I was frozen out of system completely. No hotel, no food, no travel possible. I went to local police station where a very nice police officer allowed me to make a phone call to my US bank. Sure I made some – human – mistakes. The machines however ruthlessly shut me down. A human understood and fixed it instant.

Alabama Slamma
Alabama Slamma
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Dunford

Imagine if Alexa overheard you say something disapproving about Black Lives Matter.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago

Human labor being scarce? Perhaps it’s time to allow hundreds of thousands of new “immigrants” or “asylum seekers” to skirt the law and enter the kingdom?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

So you’re happy to be a passenger in a car driven by a complete stranger, with human error being a well known cause of accidents, yet would feel unsafe in an automated one?
I’m intrigued, are you happy for planes to fly on autopilot, or would you rather everything was done manually by the pilot even if this increased the risk considerably?
I’m not usually one for obsessing over new technology, the likes of Alexa I just find pointless but if autopiloted cars caused accidents to significantly decrease whilst allowing the would be driver to be working/sleeping/watching films I’m all for it

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Noone ever considers those people who cannot work, read or even watch films in cars (or buses) because they get motion sickness. I can only drive in a car, talk or stare out the window. I’d rather drive myself thanks.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

Me too. For some reason I get very gloomy being a passive passenger in long road trips.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Whether computer drivers would do better at safe driving than a hybrid of human-computer drivers is an unanswered question. Planes are never turned over completely to autopilots. The pilots still have controls. “Driverless” cars would not.
But I’m more interested in the issue of who controls the computers. If computers take complete control of our cars there are two big problems. One is that with machine learning no one knows what a computer will do in all situations. There’s no way to know.
Another is that someone controls the computer driver, and we car owners and passengers are not it. Someone like Elon Musk owns your Tesla, you are just using it. Read the license agreement you sign and you will see that is true.
That lack of control opens the door for problems to come in. “Open the pod-bay doors, HAL” “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

In todays news in the UK is a story of a man whose new ell electric car suffered a catastrophic system failure – the brakes wouldn’t work. He had to call the police as an emergency who helped him come to a stop by using their van to allow him to drive into it and use it to bring him to a stop. That is just an electric car, not even driverless car, at least with a driver operated car he could have used gears (even in an automatic) to slow the car.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

I wonder how many fatal car accidents have happened in the time since this comment that have nothing to do with electric cars?

James Kirk
James Kirk
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Amusing concept, a driverless caravan.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

“My mind boggles at the thought”
This from the guy who claims to be working in Silicon Valley on driverless cars – hilarious!

Y Way
Y Way
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Have you driven across a country like the United States? I have. Three times. I loved it. There definitely is a sense of adventure and the open road. If I were younger and up to doing it again, I would absolutely love to do so.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Y Way

Sure – driving can be enjoyable, and especially in contexts like the one you describe. But in congested cities it’s self created nightmare. It really doesn’t work well.

Maurice Frank
Maurice Frank
8 months ago

Ridiculous. Sad to that unherd has become a bog standard conservative outlet.

James Kirk
James Kirk
8 months ago
Reply to  Maurice Frank

Feel free to patronise The Guardian, New Statesman and the Daily Mirror.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Maurice Frank

Agree. At its best it publishes some good articles. At its worst it veers between feminist rag, and here a sort of Tory GQ.

The sentiments read like someone has had their brains replaced with advertising copy. The thing about cars is that if everybody has them they go from the joy promoted by the admen to a congestion nightmare. And the people driving them (contrast cyclists) don’t look full of joy and power – they look miserable, trapped, isolated in their tin boxes.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

Self driving cars and robotaxis are coming whether Crawford likes it or not. They are estimated to be fully autonomous within 10 years once AGI has arrived and they will improve road safety by taking away power from irresponsible w humans. As for the Wall E future, that isn’t unlikely but if its what gives people pleasure then its not the business of a puritannical American to stop it in the name of an individualist ideology of “ freedom “.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
8 months ago

‘They are estimated
.’ – do you have a solid reference for that vast claim? I remember when they were ‘estimated’ to be available a decade ago. Also, ‘..if it gives people pleasure’ needs a bit more definition – as a vague generalisation it’s a remarkably poor reason to sweep away anything, much less other peoples’ freedoms.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

The estimation comes from people in the tech industry and is by no means a consensus but most expect it within 10 years for the very good technical reason that intelligence seems to emerge from neural nets as more computing power is applied. If an assisted existence gives people pleasure and is at zero cost because robotics has made manual Labour redundant then this will not sweep anybody’s freedom away as they will not be affected. Anyone who dislikes it will be free to reject the offer but they will not be free to prevent it being available to those who desire it.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago

“Anyone who dislikes it will be free to reject the offer
?
Can I have that in writing, please?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago

Well stated. Some folks loved communism too.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago

You will make a very good comrade, or apparatchik, some day.