Some ideas are so good that their appeal is immediately compelling.
For example, when my classmates and I encountered the intellectual demands of elementary and junior high school – how can we ever learn all this? – we fantasized about a “knowledge pill,” an ingestible capsule that could immediately provide mastery of long division and ready identification of the capital of every state.
Surely, the “driverless car” is such an idea. As much as Americans love driving, who wouldn’t prefer to be relieved sometimes of its drudgery, to be able to key a destination into a computer and relax and enjoy the ride?
Both of these ideas sound too good to be true, but, ordinarily, one will go broke by betting against human ingenuity.
In fact, innovator and technology prophet Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT MediaLab, announced in a recent TED talk that within 30 years we'll be able to reduce information to a capsule that can deliver knowledge and skills – I’m not so sure about wisdom – directly to the brain via the bloodstream. No more tedious reading, writing, and thinking.
And what about driverless cars? For at least four years, Google has been working on a car that can drive itself, as long as a human is ready to intervene in case of trouble. Recently, Google has turned its attention to the development of a car that requires no human supervision.
Traditional car companies have developed self-driving prototypes, as well. Writing last year for MIT Technology Review, Will Knight reports on “driving” a BMW 5 Series, a vehicle with built-in sensors that permit a computer to interpret the car’s surroundings and make driving decisions that could, theoretically, be as good as a human’s. Or better. And the computer never drinks alcohol before hitting the road and never texts or dozes off behind the wheel.
Knight reports, however, that despite this technology’s allure, the Wonderland of Autonomous Vehicles lies very far away, beyond a number of practical obstacles. The complexities of a truly driverless car are staggering, to say nothing of the expense. The semi-driverless car, which performs many driving tasks automatically, but still requires human supervision, is a much more feasible project, but it has obstacles of its own. Knight’s conclusion is that we shouldn’t expect to see driverless cars at a reasonable scale anytime soon.
Is the completely driverless car possible? Certainly.
But in some respects our global commitment to the pleasures of personal vehicle ownership has reached a crisis. For example, hybrids and electric cars are intriguing possibilities, but the personal vehicle will depend on the internal combustion engine well into the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, every gallon of gasoline burned emits nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, amounting to more than 1.5 billion metric tons per year in the United States alone. Even global warming deniers have to question whether injecting this much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually could be a completely benign practice.
At the same time, the infrastructure that supports our infatuation with automobiles is breaking down, and traffic gridlock is a fact of life in many modern cities. And what about the hundred people who die in traffic accidents every day in the United States, largely because of human error and bad driving practices like speeding, drinking, and texting?
One wonders if the prospect of driverless cars provides an opportunity to re-think our original commitment – particularly in America – to the personal vehicle. If we can envision and develop driverless cars, perhaps we can envision a do-over of our commitment to the notion that everyone must have his own automobile.
In our country, the alternatives – buses and trains – have been neglected into impracticality. Few Americans are willing to give up the freedom and flexibility of the automobile for the choices they currently have available.
But the times call for ingenuity. Let’s imagine the transportation system that’s efficient and near-pollution free, that’s much safer and that frees us from the unproductive drudgery of driving.
Impossible? Let’s not underestimate ourselves. But the chief obstacle is our psychology rather than our technology.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.