Self-driving cars will save money and lives as they destroy jobs

-August 22, 2017

It was 1978, and I saw a 1969 Dodge Charger with a sign in the window: For Sale, $600, doesn’t run. My sister’s boyfriend came to check it out with me. We leaned under the hood. He said, “This monster barely fits in the engine compartment!” Then he fiddled some more and said. “Six hundred bucks? Buy it now. Get the money, or I will.”

“Why?”

“Dude, the points are welded together. We change the points and this car is cherry. A cherry 69 Charger for $600? Now. Buy it.”

I tried to dicker. He kicked me.

He showed me how to change the points and I drove it away. I rebuilt it in auto shop because, well, I wanted to. I put in a rad camshaft, shaved the heads to increase compression, modified exhaust and intake, developed a collection of carburetors (the Carter Thermoquad turned out to be the heart of the beast, rigged so I could control the secondaries from behind the wheel with the AC switch). Every cent I made went into that car. It burned rubber accelerating from 60 to 80 mph. My girlfriends had to make do with riding in my awesome car (and wearing my cool Nomadz “gang” jacket) because I wouldn’t spend money on movies or dinners, just pure Mopar power.

Even then I knew that our car society had issues.

Cars are inefficient
Ever touch an engine while it’s been running a while? The vast majority of the available energy in gasoline is burned off as heat, only about 15% makes it to the rear wheels. The maximum possible efficiency, that is the Carnot limit, is closer 54%.

Petroleum is a terrific source of easy access to carbon for building materials, pharmaceuticals, fabric, and hundreds of consumer products and we burn it at a clip of about 143 million gallons a year in the US alone.

Roads and parking lots suck up vast quantities of the most valuable real estate. Nearly 1% of the total surface area is paved for cars and trucks.

Driving in cars is the riskiest thing you do
Other than disease, automobile accidents are the highest cause of death worldwide. How many people do you know who experience chronic pain caused by a car accident? More people die in cars every six weeks than died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We’ve spent trillions on fighting terrorism, but we keep driving cars.

Most of us live in residential areas where we maintain our shelters. We drive to the store to get food; we drive to work to derive a sense of accomplishment; we drive to the Coliseum to experience joy and agony; we drive to our friends’ shelters to build social bonds. The car-based society puts us in a box, usually alone, for hours a day. Sitting in cars instead of walking, even walking from bus to train to taxi to—makes us fat, cranks up rates of diabetes, hypertension, and discomfort on airplanes. Humans are social creatures who need to be with the other humans and cars keep us away from them.

Self-driving cars will disrupt society
When you can summon a self-driving car with an app, you won’t have to make car payments, pay for car insurance, registration, gas, repairs, and so on, you’ll have some extra money to spend. Provided they’re well debugged (and they will be or we’re all suing the Ubers of the future), they’ll be orders of magnitude safer. Since you’ll have to pay by the ride, you’ll probably walk a bit more often, maybe take a train or a bus now and then. Healthcare costs could go down without all those aches and pains, broken bones, concussions …not to mention fenders.


The University of Michigan adapted these three Ford Fusions to autonomous self driving.
(Source: University of Michigan)

We’ll feel better! Well, except for truck drivers, cab drivers, most mechanics, car dealers and insurers, manufacturers of those little air fresheners, gas station attendants … who will lose their jobs. That’s disruption.

Automation has altered civilization plenty since the first seed was cultivated. By increasing productivity and efficiency jobs are destroyed. Economists, politicians, philosophers, and science fiction writers have been predicting that automation would cause massive unemployment since Henry Ford’s assembly line and it hasn’t happened.

Similarly, the exponential increase in population has led to forecasts of global famine but we’ve innovated our way into a nearly post-scarcity world. Even so, the planet cannot support an arbitrary number of humans. Is automation similarly doomed to cause an employment-free economy?

Does anyone truly desire a pointless job?
If you knew that a machine could do your job better than you, would it affect your sense of accomplishment? Would you find as much satisfaction in a “job done almost as well as a machine could do it” as you do from a “job well done? I don’t think so.

As the engineers who develop automation technology, what responsibility do we have to address the side effects? Dare you try to guide policy? Perhaps run for office?

And one other thing
“Self-driving,” you say? Who is debugging these things? I hope it’s someone with experience; someone who has written code in assembly or even Fortran back when memory management was an issue and bugs weren’t acceptable, that is, before Microsoft ever launched a product. But that’s just good-ole-daze syndrome.

Ransom Stephens is a technologist, science writer, novelist, and Raiders fan.

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