The unmanned car is inevitable. Too much money is moving too quickly toward that end result to make it anything less than an inevitability. Uber, the Uber of Taxi companies, pants while it whips it’s huskies in research and development ever-forward. Less a cab company than a data collection agency, each time one of their cars is hailed and moves through traffic to meet the customer, and each time the customer arrives, the route, the speed, the time of day is all catalogued. Uber is not known for being a good employer because they have no particular desire to be employers, but that happens to be a pain in the ass part of their R&D. The driverless car will arrive, and that particular problem will go away. The question for the not so distant future is how to make that fifth seat available to another customer.
We are promised that, at first, even though all accidents on record have come at the cost of outside human error, a lowly human will still preside over the automated car, to be phased out as quickly as technology can render this technician useless. Currently, Elon Musks’ Tesla models have an uncanny autopilot feature (which many feel is entirely separate tech than that of the fully autonomous cars being built by competitors, in this case, the safety Swedes at Volvo) and he has come out saying that half of cars will be fully automated in 7 or 8 years. According to that same article, Ford has put their autonomous goal around 2020, and no one else has set out a timeline, probably hedging their bets against legislative difficulties, which a corporation not involved in a privatized space race might be more likely to do. What people do agree on is that it is coming no matter what, and relatively soon. Questions will soon turn to how good is the data on pulling over and pulling a puking customer out of the vehicle. By turning cars into small personalized-route public vehicles you’ve essentially decided that car interiors must be plastic and easily hosed-down. Let’s backpedal.
I’m writing this in god’s country – a particular pocket of the San Francisco Bay-Area where the traditional local idealogues inflict pain on you through a combination of bumper stickers, devastatingly annoying conversations at the Trader Joe’s check out lines, and in their absolute inability to do anything real about the racial and monetary inequality in the area, despite their insistently inflexible progressive political stances. It doesn’t matter anymore though, because they couldn’t keep a hold on their slice of the area either, and are being pulled out by yes, the tech industry.
And so there will be unmanned cars. I’m told so by my tech-adjacent friends (in waste heat and new-finance respectively) that driverless cars, among other burgeoning tech, are an inevitability; A forgone conclusion not worthy of further discussion. The look you get when you say you don’t trust them is akin to voicing a ‘False Flag’ truther opinion. This feeling of inevitability has been the sticking point all along. This wave of tech workers has overwhelmed the Bay Area like bugs on a not-dead-yet-but-starving-to-death-all-the-same locale, leaving the dehydrated corpse of the Bay Area as locals knew it wondering how to get up, when it’s already dead, and the swarm of ants wonders why the corpse keeps trying to live, when it’s so clearly their meal, no longer capable of making its own decisions. This tech faction tends to feel that their arrival was not only inevitable, but non-negotiable, and they seem to take the same attitude with the technology they put into the world. Sometimes, these advances are medical, sometimes they’re ecological, but no one is here to do this for free. (Those that aren’t here for the second coming of the tech rush know so by the increase in everything but service wages.)
A great many of the inconsequential to anyone without a larger median income apps are made in the “making lives easier” department, and they speak to the immediacy of want clashing with the uncomfortable reality of the world around you; Seamless, so you don’t have to deal with someone on the phone, (or go out and interact with service people), Uber, the same but for the train or bus, and so on and so forth, for your laundry, child and animal care, cleaning your own home. And now, we’re on the verge of seeing another job made irrelevant, another swath of people made unnecessary. In my mind this urgent push away from unskilled labor only stresses the need for education, before too many people have nothing to do anymore, since it’s become readily apparent this country’s citizenry nor its government intends to feed or house people for free any time soon.
The end game of the autonomous car is not, however, to get a bunch of people fired, left jobless, although that will happen. The point seems to be to create another facet of public transport, maybe the “slack” of public transport; As slack finds itself useful as a work specific communication limbo between chat and email, here comes to evolution of the Google bus. These cars can be shared and kept in retail-style garages for timed rental, sure, but they can also be company sponsored commuter vessels with set times and routes, especially for the companies developing them. In May, Google and Chrysler announced that they would begin work on an automatic minivan, which makes more long term sense for autonomous vehicles, and Elon Musk has spoken about an autonomous bus. What happens when this goes to the public sector?
Here is a cursory list of things a person that isn’t you might think when they first see an unmanned taxi:
“There’s a good place for us to have sex”
“There’s a great place to pick up my internet date and have sex with them”
“Wouldja look at the mobile bathroom.”
“People are going to attack each other in there.”
“I could do drugs in there.”
“I could also meet someone and sell them drugs in there.”
The last on the list came when making this brief list aloud at breakfast. I’m visiting my Mother, who is smarter than me, and who would definitely make a better criminal than me. She wondered why I hadn’t thought about making hand offs in an unmanned car. Now, maybe the Will the Google Knightrider come off the assembly line with an automatic hose and siren, to go with the smoke detector it will certainly have? What about the first assault that takes place in one of these vehicles? It’s not certain whether Uber has been collecting data on how drivers are a deterrent on abuse while they’re present. Once they aren’t present, in what way is the taxi company liable?
The graffiti opportunities a bigger unmanned car might provide are…exciting. Normal cars are generally a no-go as private personal property is a frowned upon canvas. Big box cars let your alter ego travel state to state. A big unmanned van owned by company XYZ can get your name around the city in no time. But for now we consider the small immediate crimes taking place within an unmanned car. Enter the autonomous car’s security guard.
I went to see Lil Yachty perform at the MoMa almost ten months ago. Everything was what you’d expect from a backdoor booking. Someone younger, booking the youth aimed nights with an open bar books Young Jake, a tech savvy rapper with immediately relevant style and taste, who in turn books Yachty, Yachty’s tape came out the week before, the booking had surely been prior (right?). The youth appeared, as they do, and flooded the fuckin’ place, acting young and loud and awkward but cool. I walked into the atrium of the museum into a sea of teenagers mobbing an open bar and smoking cigarettes (it was great). I strained to picture a concerned Danish father of 4 smelling the faintest cloud of tobacco the next morning close to the opening time, towering over his imaginary nordic family and quietly slamming a packet of snus into his gum. What I saw when I opened my eyes again was a very pissed off security guard letting off some steam at whoever passed by next to another security guard who had quit in spirit at least a half hour prior. They were museum staff who’d signed on for what I hoped was time and a half, but not for this shit. When I think of a city-owned autonomous minivan, I think about the imaginary nordic family at the MoMa and I think about the real chain smoking teenagers at the Yachty show, and I think about them using the same driverless minivan back to back, and then I picture the security guard from the MoMa sitting in the driver’s seat, wondering what sort of shit he signed up for, and if it was avoidable at all.
Of course, this probably won’t shape out. Cameras will beam back to some panopticon nestled in a city adjacent suburb. There’s a puritanical shift manager who has to balance life at home with their partner and children while making sure the lower level night shift officers don’t just watch customers fornicate. At first the monitors will be senior officers sure, they might be as witty and able as the doomsday balance bringers played by Richard Jenkins and the always playful Bradley Whitford in the recent classic film “Cabin In The Woods” but within months it’d be downgraded to a Newman in Jurassic Park before simply becoming another low paid shift job. These people are job creators, don’t forget. (“But why are they paying less for people watching the most crime-ridden hours, you ask? Mark it down an unsubstantiated blathering, but this will happen in reality, as you can generally count on risky cost cutting.)
Where is the line drawn, within the panopticon? At what point do they press the prompt, where the inside lights flash once, and a siri esque voice reminds you that “We’re glad you chose Google ride, please refrain from aggressive romantic activity, we are getting you home as quickly as possible.” What will the second warning sound like? When will the voice change tone, and threaten to pull over? Will a voice come over the loudspeaker in real time, like an angry MTA operator cursing a busker or homeless person? By that point the message might be reduced to a erudite “Quit fucking in our Kia (The official car of the NBA),This is your last warning from Yahoo, Sir, please keep your hands over the sweater and above the belt.”
What then, do we do with the privatized transportation? Surely these cars can be controlled remotely if the AI fails, and there will be a thousand checks to make sure not only that (almost) nobody dies in an accident, but what they cannot account for is the human world happening all around them. Maybe it’ll be like Monopoly, and they’ll just go straight to jail. Fleeing the scene in a cab already doesn’t work out, but there’s there’s no accounting for the human condition, and maybe these robot cars won’t resemble bathroom sized 80’s New York subway trains. But what happens to the first scammer who throws themselves across the hood of a driverless minivan? Do we believe the software or the liar? As we automate away huge swaths of working lives we must remember that we cannot account for the chaos that humans will always provide.