Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Thought About Cars And Driving

     Time was, reaching the age of sixteen was celebrated for more than one reason. At sixteen years of age, a youth could start taking driving lessons, with an eye to winning a driver’s license and achieving that ultimate badge of American independence: auto-mobility!

     (Yes, yes, it helps to have a car, but that’s a separate subject.)

     I’ve read several times that today’s young Americans are far less interested in learning to drive and acquiring the means than were the teens of my generation and the following one. A few other commentators have mused in pixels over what this might mean. Needless to say, opinions vary.

     But consider that pattern a backdrop to another set of developments: specifically, the emergence of the self-driving car.

     Here’s a rather impressive story about a cross-continent trip in a self-driving car. The engineer who claims to have accomplished the feat said he only touched the wheel and pedals out of biological necessity:

     Anthony Levandowski, the controversial engineer at the heart of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, claims to have built an automated car that drove from San Francisco to New York without any human intervention.

     The 3,099-mile journey started on 26 October on the Golden Gate Bridge, and finished nearly four days later on the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan.

     The car, a modified Toyota Prius, used only video cameras, computers and basic digital maps to make the cross-country trip.

     Levandowski told the Guardian that, although he was sitting in the driver’s seat the entire time, he did not touch the steering wheels or pedals, aside from planned stops to rest and refuel. “If there was nobody in the car, it would have worked,” he said.

     Let’s assume that this actually happened as described above. What does it mean?

     For one thing, it suggests that the practical significance of being able to drive is decreasing, and that it could conceivably drop to zero in the future. For another, it indicates that there’s one hell of a lot of highly detailed information available about the national road system: available, moreover, to a vehicle in motion. And for a third, it implies that we’re approaching a state of affairs in which it will become feasible for the federal government to demand that all cars be self-driving.

     At that point the privately owned automobile would become an endangered species. Indeed, it might be abolished by law. For why, after all, would anyone need to own one? Just dial up the nearest depot, have one toddle over to your location for whatever jaunt you have in mind, and have it return to the depot when your errands are complete. No muss; no fuss; and no garage needed.

     The special variety of competence and self-assurance required to pilot a moving car would disappear within a generation. Add it to the list of other competences our hyper-specialized economy has made scarce.

     A dear, departed friend often lamented to me about the disappearance of basic competences. That friend was so ultra-competent, and in so many ways, that I’d have bet my savings that he could start from the forest primeval and rebuild American civilization to about the 1950 level. I can’t imagine what he’d think of a society in which true independent mobility over distances longer than a mile or two was uncommon.

     Specialization has two faces. One of them is economic efficiency. The other is a level of social interdependence that implies an equal degree of individual helplessness. I wrote about it in Freedom’s Scion:

     As they exited the tree-lined corridor from the commercial strip and turned onto the pathway to Morelon House, Althea halted her husband and turned to face him. “I can’t figure out what he’s planning, can you?”
     Martin gazed at her ruefully. “I’ve been thinking about that and nothing else, love. But I’m dead certain it’s nothing we’d enjoy.”
     “So what now?”
     He grimaced. “I don’t know. Postpone the trip, for sure. How to get our initial load up to Thule? Frankly, I don’t think we have much choice. Our clan had heavy-lift capacity at one point, didn’t it?”
     She nodded. “Yeah, but we sold the plane when Adam’s dad set up shop here. Charisse said she was happy to get rid of it. It made more sense to hire it out, so we wouldn’t have to maintain a plane and train pilots.”
     She glanced at the entrance to Morelon House. The old mansion looked as sturdy as ever. It presented an appearance of immutable strength to all who saw it. Yet it had begun to seem to her that the clan had undermined that strength in several ways, with several decisions. None of them had been fatal; indeed, when each was made, it had appeared to be the obvious choice. Yet in combination, they had rendered Clan Morelon massively dependent upon the wills and skills of a multitude of outsiders...persons who might not be as available or dependable as one would hope.
     —That’s the downside of the division of labor, Al.
     Yeah. I can see that, Grandpere. But how could we have avoided it?
     —By resisting all the temptations to specialize and to make use of specialists. By purchasing absolute self-sufficiency at the price of economic advantage. Which, incidentally, no clan or society known to history has ever managed to do.
     The incentives are too strong, aren’t they?
     —Judge for yourself, dear. Put yourself in Charisse’s place at the point when Jack Grenier moved into the area and started offering his services around. Would you have done as she did, knowing only what she did at the time?
     Probably. If there’s a lesson in this—
     —If there is, Al, no one has ever drawn it. The division of labor is the one and only path toward general prosperity. It can go to an incredible depth. A
frightening depth. And it is utterly reliant upon the character and good will of the specialists. Let one critical specialty be corrupted by political forces, or conceive of a grudge against some other group, or even decide that it can rape its customers without fear of reprisal, and the destruction spreads faster than anyone can act to check it.

     When mastering the skills required to drive was a rite of passage toward adulthood, the young American could claim at least one “merit badge” for having won a license. What happens if that’s taken from them? What would replace it – if anything?

     Oh, never mind. It’s too early in the morning for such pessimism. Besides, my digital auto-grinder / brewer has just texted me that the coffee’s ready, so it’s time to power up my electric scooter, have it zip me over to the kitchen, and let the waldoes pour me a cup of java. Yeah, yeah: I still have to add the milk myself, but no doubt someone is working on that. See you later.

6 comments:

Bill Sheffield said...

I've witnessed the non-driving attitude amongst a few millennials. Some corollaries to this phenomenon are no teens doing yard work anymore, along with soccer mom's meeting ten year olds at the bus stop with a golf cart. To much for the little darlings to walk two blocks home in the gated community.

Amy Bowersox said...

The more frightening aspect of the scenario is that the companies that actually own the self-driving cars will know everywhere you go. And who's to say that they won't sell that information to the highest bidder? And, of course, turn it over to the government at the drop of a hat? Of course they will. Even the old Soviet Union never had so much information on the locations of its citizens. It will be nothing less than the end of freedom as we know it.

P Hall said...

There's a difference between knowing how to drive and owning a car. The sharing economy makes ownership less necessary, given how many options such as Uber, ride share apps, even scooters. And when I hear "self driving car", i think rolling missiles waiting to be hacked and exploited.

Linda Fox said...

That is exactly why I periodically go back to baking bread (not in a wood stove, but...). I've resisted the lure of the Kuerig coffeemaker, both for the ridiculous cost of the original machine, and the cost of the individual cups. But, also, because a society needs to be able to freaking non-automated cup of coffee!

Think about the loss of skills:
- measuring the ingredients - water, coffee
- grinding the coffee beans (the BEST way to have it - FRESH coffee)
- putting the grind into the coffee filter (lets people see what they are actually consuming - not the bean but the flavored essence of it)

No that's not a lot, but think about this - it's a transparent process, with measuring practice. Also, if we do enter TEOTWAWKI, it's but a trifle to learn how to roast the beans and hand-grind them. OK, that still leaves acquiring the beans, but I'm assuming that such will be a priority in the post-Apocalyptic world. Probably before antibiotics and food.

Linda Fox said...

That should have been freaking MAKE a cup of non-automated coffee.

Linda Fox said...

It's worse than that, Sue. Our new overlords will be able to tell us, "No, you can't do that," in that creepy HAL voice.

The car gave us control of our own lives - well, the horse did it earlier, but, in modern times, it was an astounding level of freedom in our daily lives.

That's the real goal of the Progressive Control Freaks - they want to limit our freedoms - to move around, to live where we want, to eat what we choose, to own and use a gun, to vote freely (and, without someone being able to see how we voted, and - if we don't vote properly - change that vote). The Progressives have found out that - given a choice - most people won't do what the Progressives know is best for us. So, their every action is designed to bring us - even the noncompliant - into alignment with what they have determined is the right thing.

It's an extension of the Victorian Ideal, at time when women, buoyed by the rare example of a woman running the country, took unto themselves the power to force the 'less-enlightened' people to do as they said. Hence, the many pieces of hectoring legislation, drive to eliminate child labor (the only thing that kept many poor families alive), anti-alcohol actions, etc.