An autonomous vehicle being used for public transport in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: iStock

It is just 15 years since the US military’s defense research agency offered $1 million to anyone who could create an autonomous vehicle capable of traversing a 240-kilometer course in the Mojave Desert. All 15 contenders crashed out of the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 and not one vehicle got further than 11.9km. The following year, however, five vehicles crossed the finish line, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency lost its prize money, and the world was thrust into a race to monetize a technology that, until that moment, no one knew was needed.

News that the UK is to relax the rules governing the public testing of autonomous vehicles is the latest sign that the driverless-car gold rush is unstoppable. In an apparently desperate bid to “cement” the UK’s “position as a world leader” in driverless-car technology, the government is to support “advanced trials” on public roads, with or without humans riding shotgun.

The UK’s “leadership” will be limited to lowering global standards of oversight – in the undignified scramble to exploit this technology, one lax regulatory precedent begets another. Governments everywhere are falling at the feet of the evangelistic futurists and technocrats.

Traditional car manufacturers, afraid to be left behind by competitors, are clambering on to the driverless bandwagon. And, without a doubt, fully automated cars are coming to a road near you, and soon.

Last August, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, pledging to ensure Dubai’s “primacy” in the field, announced that autonomous vehicles would be on the emirate’s roads in the “near future.” A quarter of all journeys in the city, it says, will be driverless by 2030.

Last year the Saudi-backed SoftBank Vision Fund, a shareholder in driverless-car pioneer Uber, invested US$2.25 billion in General Motors’ Cruise Holdings, focused on snatching first-mover advantage away from Google’s Waymo and Tesla.

In short, the only people who have been left out of this loop are … the people.

Self-driving cars and trucks clearly have the potential to reduce climate-change emissions. Also, it would be nonsense to suggest that the four fatal accidents since 2016 (three Tesla drivers and a pedestrian struck by an Uber car) invalidate the potential of this technology to save lives some day.

Human beings are shockingly bad drivers. In a classic demonstration of flawed risk-perception, we accept with blinkered equanimity the annual global toll of 1.2 million lives lost to cars, equivalent to 160 Airbus A320s crashing every month

After all, human beings are shockingly bad drivers. In a classic demonstration of flawed risk-perception, we accept with blinkered equanimity the annual global toll of 1.2 million lives lost to cars, equivalent to 160 Airbus A320s crashing every month.

But there are so many potential practical, moral and psychosocial consequences of the rush to automation that the collective failure to consider them amounts to a global abrogation of responsibility.

No consensus has been sought on the desirability of this technology. Who wants it, and why? Forced to choose between protecting its passenger or a pedestrian, whom will the car spare? If you’re a passenger in a car that harms someone, will you or the corporate owner be legally responsible? What will the millions who lose their jobs to automated transport do for a living?

And – the most pressing current concern – did anyone ask you if you wanted to be part of the experiment taking place in the next lane as you drive your child to school? A good analogy would be a pharmaceutical company administering a trial drug to individuals without first bothering to secure their informed consent. But governments, dazzled by the prize, seem not to care about this.

For industry, there is a more fundamental question. Will we willingly give up our cars and go along for the automated ride? A recent survey showed 75% of Americans would be too afraid.

The motor industry has spent the past century hardwiring our brains to consider car ownership as the ultimate expression of personality and freedom. So now we should just forget all that and take a back seat? It remains to be seen how that will play in motoring-mad countries such as those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, where ownership of the fastest, flashiest car is the ultimate status symbol.

There may be an even deeper disconnect in store for our psyches, which have evolved over millennia. Although a relatively recent technological development, the personal vehicle – the horse or camel of our era – is a symbolic throwback to a time when we were relatively free to choose where to go and how to live. This genetic programming, exploited by countless car commercials, remains inside us.

How, then, are we going to react when the techno-visionaries, aided and abetted by fawning governments everywhere, try to take away our iron horses, the last vestige of our genetically remembered freedoms?

In the US, automated vehicles have already been subject to physical attacks by people who say no one asked them if they wanted this technology or sought their consent to experiments being conducted on their streets.

To no avail. In an era when only the new has currency, it is too easy for the likes of Google and Tesla and the authorities who support them to dismiss as Luddites those who question the frantic pace and direction of change.

In the end, driverless cars, trucks and buses may well end the carnage on our roads and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. But if the mesmerized governments and self-serving technocrats don’t pause to address the concerns of the man and woman on the street, they may find themselves facing social upheaval on a scale that makes the recent stoning of Waymo cars in Arizona look like an enthusiastic endorsement.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

––––––

Asia Times has relaunched on www.asiatimes.com . Download our brand new native App for a sweeping selection of geopolitical and business news throughout Asia.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Join the Conversation

40 Comments

  1. I discovered your blog site on google and check a few of your early posts. Continue to keep up the very good operate. I just additional up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Seeking forward to reading more from you later on!?

  2. whoah this weblog is excellent i really like reading your articles.
    Keep up the great work! You know, a lot of persons are hunting around for this info, you could help
    them greatly.

  3. Good day! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog
    article or vice-versa? My site goes over a lot of the same topics as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.
    If you might be interested feel free to send me an email.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the way!

  4. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google,
    and found that it is really informative. I’m gonna watch out for brussels.
    I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing.
    Cheers!

  5. Greetings I am so grateful I found your web site, I really found you by accident, while I
    was searching on Aol for something else, Nonetheless I am here now and would just like to say thank you
    for a tremendous post and a all round enjoyable blog (I
    also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to look over it all at the moment but I have book-marked it and
    also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a lot more,
    Please do keep up the great work.

  6. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this website.
    It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s very difficult to get that
    “perfect balance” between superb usability and appearance.
    I must say you’ve done a fantastic job with this. Additionally,
    the blog loads super quick for me on Firefox. Superb Blog!

  7. Wonderful beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how can i subscribe for a blog site? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear concept

  8. I blog quite often and I seriously thank
    you for your content. This article has really peaked my interest.
    I am going to book mark your website and keep checking
    for new information about once a week. I opted
    in for your RSS feed as well. natalielise plenty of
    fish

  9. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else encountering problems with your website.

    It appears as if some of the text in your content are running off
    the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know
    if this is happening to them as well? This may be a problem with my web browser because
    I’ve had this happen before. Thanks plenty of fish natalielise

  10. Can I simply say what a comfort to find somebody who actually understands what
    they are discussing on the net. You definitely realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important.
    More and more people have to check this out and understand this side of
    the story. I was surprised you are not more popular given that you surely possess the gift.

  11. Hi! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any problems with hackers?
    My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing months
    of hard work due to no backup. Do you have any methods to prevent
    hackers?

  12. Excellent beat ! I would like to apprentice at the same time as you amend your website, how could i subscribe
    for a blog website? The account helped me a applicable deal.

    I were tiny bit familiar of this your broadcast offered brilliant clear idea

  13. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come
    across a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and without a
    doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.

    The problem is an issue that too few men and women are speaking intelligently about.
    I’m very happy that I came across this during my hunt for
    something regarding this.

  14. I have been surfing on-line more than three hours as of late, yet I
    by no means found any fascinating article like yours.
    It is lovely worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you
    probably did, the net will be much more helpful than ever before.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *