Self-driving cars aren’t my cup of tea

Blackberry was once a leading cellular device manufacturer in the world. Any self-respecting businessman with a suit and tie were expected to trot around with one of their sleek devices in their pockets. In fact, its worldwide popularity meant that, at the heights of its success it was synonymous with the word smartphone. But every now and then, the game changes, and when it finally did in the mobile phone industry, Blackberry wasn’t quick enough to learn the rules. Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy series paved the way for devices with software solely based on touch screens, and Blackberry soon could only find its way into the pockets of its few loyal customers.

The change of the game, as seen above, is observed in nearly every industry at varying points of time in history. And as you read this, the automobile sector is undergoing the same. Autonomous or self-driving cars are being pushed into the market, spurred on by the youthful spirit of Tesla, and bolstered by the veterans at Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Patents are being put up nearly every month, and the race to build the reliable, family friendly, autonomous car has never been more competitive. Me ? I couldn’t be less excited.

Why, you ask. You see, I could argue about the laziness and sloth of us human beings all day long, but they would all be run of the mill, obvious and boring points. I feel something else is happening which warrants far more attention from us than all of the above.

Globally, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer on an economic scale. In the auto industry, this happens on an intellectual scale, which is far worse.  Because, you see, the advent of self-driving cars introduces code, for the first time, into the system. The more software you write onto a car’s system, the more you are cutting it off from the public, because no manufacturer in their right minds would ever allow potentially untrained souls to tinker with the logic of a computer that is responsible for maintaining the safety of an object designed to travel at sixty miles an hour.  It effectively creates a bubble in which everything related to a car’s working exists within the realms of an expensive college education, and an even more expensive license from the brand. No longer can people work on their own cars, they will have to shell out money to Toyota to deal with its problems.

We (or the upcoming generation) can adapt, you say, just like we have adapted to everything else over the years. But I must urge you to look closely at the problem. The invention of the personal computer and the internet forced the working population of today to largely learn how to code. Mistakes, while frowned upon, are expected and permitted, because a bug in a website can be more or less diagnosed and corrected in a few hours. Don’t you see where it goes wrong ? A bug in a car’s logic board can cause the loss of life. We don’t have the flexibility we had with nearly everything else from Silicon Valley with vehicles.

Beyond this, problems exist at sea level. Today, there are drivers who cannot handle a manual transmission because automation of gears makes it really a waste of time to learn how to change gears. In the years to come, there are going to be people who cannot handle a car, because automation of the drivetrain makes it a waste of time to learn how to drive. This may not seem like a huge deal, but think about this. Planes can basically fly themselves. How comfortable will you be getting onto a plane without a trained pilot ?

The next and last thing, the one that I about the most, is creativity and industry. Imagine a society without enthusiasts in one of the most interesting sections of technology. A world in which you save up to buy a car that you can’t tinker with and learn about as you work on it, destroying curiosity and experimentation.  No one really cares anymore, but 15 year olds used to be able to fix a carburetor without help at one point of time. Everyone took care of their own machines, many families considered their car as a project to work on.  Cars are now becoming the closed system that Steve Jobs once envisioned for personal computers. Well packaged, elegant and safe, yes. Thrilling? Not anymore. And this is a sad story for millions of kids like me who grew up watching the appalling fast and furious franchise and playing the legendary Gran Turismo and GTA series. Cars today and tomorrow will always be a product of safety regulations, emission warnings, and advancements in automated decision making.

Self-driving cars are on a train which will definitely hit us. No one wants to be Blackberry. Every company will try their best and beyond to automate what once used to be the pinnacle of nearly every child’s dream. But learning from the trends in history, there is eventually going to be retrospection and failed attempts at correction. You heard it here first.

Thejas J. Sathish

Volunteer Organizer, TEDxNITTrichy


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