Spinning Wheels

Baby, You Can’t Drive
My Car. Nor Should You

Well, it was a good run. From its late 1600s invention to its 20th-century mass production, the car enjoyed a fast, risky, and racy love affair with people. But alas, it may be over. And the signs of a probable popularity crash are coming from some quite unexpected places.
Mainly, its evolution. See, once we begin traveling in driverless, accident-proof, shape-shifting vehicles, what can possibly come next? The quicksand of moral considerations, of course. Or, rather bluntly, will your model choose to save your life or those in the school bus?

At the very least, that’s what we get when we aim at convenience: we’re so willing to trade our hands-on approach to driving with the exactitude of machines, that they may as well make decisions against our best interests. Meaning, save the kids, dump you down the ravine.
With the vexing plus of such artificial intelligence, now capable of safely handling a one-tone speeding vehicle among hundreds of others, not being even that intelligent. The technology that allows a car to go from point A to point B is as old as that which built the pyramids. Just like pushing blocks onto a prefab grid.
We’re not knocking the brave new world of computer research, and the wonders of such a complex piece of engineering that gets us there faster. An evolutionary leap that, in less than a century, rendered the human factor nearly obsolete, as far as its moving parts are concerned.
And yes, thanks to those who came before, to Ferdinand Verbiest, to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, to Gustave Trouvé, and to Karl Benz, as well as to the man many Americans erroneously believe has invented the automobile: Henry Ford. We’ll give you a minute to check these names out.
Ford did leave an indelible imprint on this evolutionary arch, but perhaps much more relevant may have been his contribution in the context of the U.S.’s technological expanse during his lifetime. And, of course, for having resisted the public clamor for what seemed more needed then: a faster horse.


When Google successfully completed tests of its driverless car almost a decade ago, the driver’s license began its final move towards oblivion, along with birth certificates and notary signatures. A scannable eye, voice, or barcode is all that’s needed; everything else about you is already on file.
So will some familiar rites of passage, such as learning how to drive with a relative, or being the designated driver to your friends. It may not happen next month, or after Covid-19, but we’ve been down this road a few times already to know what comes around the corner.
In itself, the concept of being driven (more)
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has already taken hold long ago, at least among the elites, and you may as well be given a 1999 Volvo as an award if you can prove that you’ve spotted a celebrity or CEO driving their own cars. So as soon as African warlords start to acquire a model, you should be next.
There’s simply too much riding on automobiles in our world to believe that it’ll happen otherwise. Automakers, which have been so slow at investing in electric engines and alternative fuels, will hopefully get into the action, driven by a likely demand for cheap, environmentally-sound, and self-driving cars.
Semantically, if you indulge us, it’ll all be a return to form. After all, the word auto, when simply applied to vehicles that need to be powered and driven, has always been a sort of an accepted misnomer. Thus, when the time comes for you to call out your own car from the parking garage, as it approaches your front door, you may as well say, here, good auto, you.


Now, you may say that BMW automotive engineers have been watching one too many Batman movies. Otherwise, what drove them to design a prototype made of a movable metal frame covered by seamless Lycra, ‘that allows the driver to change its shape at will,’ according to Wire’s Chuck Squatriglia?
So that’s what cars are doing lately, raiding the 1970s for spared Spandex to cover themselves up. BMW’s Chris Bangle, head of the designing team that came up with the concept, calls it by the acronym GINA. It’s far from being even close to hitting the road, but some of its ideas have already been applied to other recent models, driverless or not. A car made of fabric – or mushrooms – is surely less lethal than the sheer metal armory they carry around today.
The fact that, even after all this time, no one is quite ready for a car with a cloth for skin, illustrates the challenges of coming up with such a radical departure from the traditional way of outfitting vehicles. If anything, the external structure of cars has only grown stronger and sturdier.
To go in the other direction poses many questions, almost as much as it opens a new realm of possibilities. A flexible car such as the GINA can actually have, under certain circumstances, a better chance of surviving a crash than heavy, breakable ones. It can, for instance, change shape at the very last moment.
That’s why we’ve mentioned the Cape Crusader: his Batmobile has undergone so many changes through the 60-odd years of the life of the character, that it became almost inevitable, for the current crop of artists in charge of its design, to create a shape-shifting little tank, as seen in the movies.
Even if not being anywhere near to watching a silky, fluid, changeable moving machine crossing your neighborhood intersection, there’s no reason to believe that your kids won’t, someday. It’ll be then very helpful if such tactile cars will also be ultra-fast, electric, and, why not? able to fly. And who’s to say that you’ll need to drive them too?
As we said before, hip hooray to the admirable new world of self-determining machines, and their better ideas than mere mortals. However, when that dawn arises and you’ll be living in a world where you actually should not drive your own car, lest not endanger thy neighbor, another line of questioning may also be arising.
The New Yorker’s Chris Marcus cut to the chase and went for the ignition key of such a discussion: what if that will imply that such machines will also have the power of making split-second moral, ethical decisions, and how high on their consideration will be your own life? The question is pertinent, as in Marcus’s example of the school bus, alluded at the beginning of this post. It goes something like this: ‘your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when an errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path.’
What choice would the AI driving your car have: swerve away from the imminent crash, most likely killing you in the process, so to save the kids? Or be like a loyal dog, and take your side no matter what, in which case, the forty kids be damned? Considering the speed at which such a decision would have to be made, you’d be out of the equation.
As you can see, and probably even agree, your prospects aren’t that good. The machine would very likely consider the quantitative element of the equation, pitting the survival of one, lowly you, against the survival of forty, the wee ones. That, dear reader, would likely be the last math operation performed on your behalf in this world.
For the sake of sticking to the point of this post, we’re not veering along that challenging rationale, and into issues of warfare and combat, the robot-versus-human-soldier realm of consideration. But we catch up with him when he comes back to the perceived fluidity of human ethics, a subject that interests us a great deal.
It may sound farfetched to imagine a Philip K. Dick-like world, where sentient machines we built are capable of making their own moral judgments, but we do face an arguably unresolvable ethical quagmire: to develop androids to serve us or to make the world a better place. We’ve come a long way to understand that these two possibilities are mutually exclusive.
As we consider our outlook on Earth, perhaps our best bet may be choosing morality over survival at any cost. In that case, whether we’ll be assigning our robots to make decisions on our behalf, or cars to drive us over the abyss, we’d have carefully weighted the price of our humanity against that of other forms of life on the planet. And decided that it’s of considerable lesser value.

(*) Originally published on Dec. 5, 2012.

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