Imagine this Thought Experiment.
A Human is in its Car going from its House down to the local Beach. The Car is driverless and does not need any Human input other than the destination address. The Human sits back and relaxes, reading the local News, maybe on paper or a screen or even a hologram projection by this point.
Then have this dialog within yourself.
Is this Human using its brain?
Well Yes, it’s reading.
Is this Human using its brain practically?
Well yes it’s making the most use of its time learning about what’s going on in its local area.
True, but is its brain being used to perform a practical task?
No the Human is sitting there.
So does this Human know how it got between its House and the Beach?
Yes, of course. It drove.
But does this Human know where the Car took it? Could this Human repeat that process or correspond it accurately to a stranger?
Has this Human learnt anything?
Yes and no. It’s gained knowledge on the local area, the gossip and the politics, but it hasn’t actually learnt anything about the local area by being there. By being present within it, driving through it looking around and engaging with the surroundings…after all it was being driven. It was reading.
In the real world all of the above would never occur in the same way. However, it’s a model that is distinctly human. But we will come onto all of that in a minute.
Firstly, in this mind prodding article I am not going to look at the ethical arguments around driverless cars and automation in general, or the science behind them. Together we are merely going to explore the practical effects and solid impact that driverless cars might have on our society, the world and us individually as humans.
If you look around you, most cars on the roads in this country are generally less than 10 years old. With governments across the world pledging to stop the sale of diesel and petrol cars within the next 10 to 25 years, a new generation of vehicles will be introduced. You just need to look at what Google (now Waymo) and BMW are doing to appreciate how close we might be. After that point a steady phasing out of old technology will take place. This could mean that, once driverless cars break into the public market they could be taking over within decades, bring with them a host of benefits and drawbacks.
Initially there may be accidents as software and technology continue to be developed and adjusted to suit the real world. However, after a few years, with inter vehicle communication and sensors, road safety will increase bringing with it a reduction in both accidents involving multiple cars and accidents involving pedestrians. This communication will mean heavy traffic can be avoided by diverting cars down alternative routes. Where there is traffic, vehicles will work together to make the roads as efficient as possible. They might all slow down to a sustainable speed to stop traffic coming to a standstill, or smoothly merge in turn when multiple lanes reduce in number. Whatever they do, over all we will each be getting around faster and in the most efficient way.
All this will result in a reduction in insurance coasts and possibly a re-invention of the insurance arrangements. Cars crash less. Cars drive more efficiently and so get less wear and tear. This may result in car companies building ‘natural life spans’ into their cars to make sure people keep buying. As the monetary cost (once you own the car) decreases, driving will become cheaper and so public transport will have to either invest in new technologies themselves or economise and push down their prices. Most probably they will have to do both, otherwise they’ll risk going bust. Car mechanics will become computer coders who mainly sit behind screens all day analysing performance data. It’s even possible that each car company will use its own software to analyse and mend their cars, leading to similar car design ideas and company models as we currently see with Apple. Cars that needs specialist tools to get into. Software and customer services that only the car company can provide for your vehicle.
We will all have more spare time as automation frees us up to do what we want in our passenger seats. Humans might become more productive, but this will possibly be balanced by an increase in the amount of time most of us spend searching the internet or on social media sites.
Most people in this country have a smart phone with google maps or satnav installed on. In this digital age we are beginning to need physical and vocal directions less and less and there may come a point when road signage becomes an unnecessary overhang of a past gone by and is completely removed. Why waste money and time maintaining road infrastructure that is never used? We may also be waving fair well to bus drivers, cabbies, chauffeurs and pretty much any other type of employment that involves driving other people around. Taxis might disappear entirely. After all when your car can drive itself, all you need to do is send it a message and it can come and pick you up from your location, beamed to it by satellite. Farewell parents having to pick up and drop off their children at schools, clubs and parties. Now your car does it for you.
Conversely this may mean that our cars start doing greater mileages as distance and time spent traveling becomes less of a an issue. Before, humans acted as a natural limitation to how far and for how long people could travel. Similarly how regularly they were prepared to do so. Now, with driverless cars, it wouldn’t matter as much.
The only occasions when people will still be driving will be for joy rides, old classics shows and racing as an entertainment spectacle. I am willing to believe that this, as a concept, is one of the greatest hurdles driverless cars will have to overcome to become a success. Humans have proven to be very attached to their cars and the power that driving can give a person is addictive. But then, like any addiction, it is possible to slowly get off it and we can almost be certain that both the free market and government policy will be pushing us towards these new vehicles as the next big step in development and growth of a country. Maybe being in the driving seat will be a fashion that will dwindle into irrelevance.
Of course with the arrival of autonomous vehicles, comes a huge change in the way we interact with the world. Coming back to that initial thought experiment, we will no longer need to interact with where we are going. We will no longer need to understand what is involved in getting from point A on a map to point B. Information such as ‘The Knowledge’ that London black cabbies have to learn will just no longer be necessary. To any of us. Forget needing to know how to travel from London to York or Lands’ End to Snowdon. You won’t even need to know how to get from your house to the local police station and so you won’t know it. The potential result is simple. On mass or individually, we will know less and less about where things are in our country, our county… maybe even our local area. No one will need directions. No one will need their own mental map.
This might sound silly, but I remember going to school. We travelled on the same bus, along the same stretch of road for 20 minutes, twice a day, for 5 years. At the end of that time I doubt whether most or any of the 50 students on that bus could direct anyone else along that route. I know I couldn’t. I tried. No one on that bus was stupid. Yes we were all young and yes at that age we probably didn’t need to know, but then that’s just the point. There are kids all over the world who, from a very young age have to travel miles to get water or go to school. They each need to know the route. They have to pay attention and engage with their locality. We did not. Every single young person on that bus was engaged 90% of the time in a conversation, a game or in a phone. They never needed to pay attention. They never learnt anything about what was outside the bubble of that bus. Even when looking out the window.
On several occasions in recent years I have been trying to find somewhere and have stopped and asked local people for directions. A majority of the time, particularly in cities, they have turned to their phone for the information. Similarly, ask any person in a delivery van for directions and they will often say they’re just following the satnav. And this makes total sense. It’s a fantastic resource that is there in your pocket or on your dashboard. It allows you to think about other things instead working out how to get between places. It’s just that driverless cars will accentuate this for everyone and without giving them an alternative. Now, not only will humans not need to know the directions, they won’t even need to look at the road.
This does unfortunately mean that our mental practicality, in certain areas, will be reduced. Our brains won’t ever learn to picture maps, our sense of direction (unless we are walking) will not be needed and we will never have to make intuitive guesses as to which direction to go at a cross roads. In short our mental agility will diminish as will a large part of regular conversation. Ancient homo-sapiens used to have huge mental maps of their territories. They also had a huge library of knowledge necessary to survive without books and such like, in their brains. The average nomadic ancient Homo-Sapiens had much better mental memory than that of a human today. However, it is true that this doesn’t mean that, given the opportunity (and the time) humans would not still be capable of regaining this. After all it’s still the same brain. It’s just that in this modern world that brain is becoming less well tuned in some area and more so in others.
The amount we talk about direction and travel is slowly but steadily decreasing and the arrival of the self-driving car will be another step in that direction. When you tell your friends about that wonderful trip you went on and they ask ‘oh yeah, that sounds amazing, where was that?’ You’ll be able to say ‘I’m not really sure, but put this name into your car and it’ll take you there…’ and that will be the end of the conversation. Maybe that is bias and it’s true, we can assume that humans will still study and take an interest in geography, allowing us to have conversations more like ‘Where was it?’ ‘Not sure, in the north of UK, just shy of Edinburgh somewhere. If you want to know exactly look it up. But here are my pictures, look’. Even so it’s is a minimal difference and on mass across a population it could have quite a large effect. Talking about everyday travel is a small and ever dwindling part of regular dialogue, but it might well become even less important.
Driverless cars will be a huge change in the fabric of our culture and will have some sociological and practical effects no matter what. Whether this is similar to what I have laid out above, only time will tell.
Of course all of this contemplation on driverless cars only begs the question ‘What happens when something goes wrong?’
Traveling explorer and general person with a background in Geology, Creative Arts and Communication Skills.