California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) recently issued its first self-driving car permits. Three companies applied: Google, Audi and Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz. Google bagged 25 test permits, the others getting two each. Safety advocates applauded the move. Google's self-driving prototypes have done 1.1 million kilometres with only one accident. The age of the self-driving car has officially begun.
What does it all mean? No one is entirely sure but one thing is certain – those self-driving cars didn't go to the DMV to wait in line for hours to get their permits. Nor did they navigate page after page of impenetrable bureaucratic websites. A human did that. Perhaps that's our first clue. In the age of the "self-driving" car, all that may be left for us meat puppets is the paperwork.
To some, the self-driving automobile is a leap forward. Current vehicles already have a lot of self-driving elements. Operating a self-driving car will be more like flying an airplane. The advanced technology will take care of much of the tasks, leaving us to worry about big-picture issues and handling the high-skill tasks.
Why do companies such as Google want to relieve us from the burden of driving? Simple. They want to augur in a brave new world of rolling data collection. That's the real engine powering this push. You'll be able to search the Web while you commute. Cars are attractive for data collection because you can't hide your identity (they are licensed). Self-driving cars will turn driving into an exercise in gathering and using information by the companies who produce (and monitor) our self-driving vehicles.
In an article headlined "Death, drones and driverless cars: how Google wants to control our lives," Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman put it this way: "Your Google Glass could come to know precisely what you're looking at; self-driving cars could rapidly build a detailed picture of users' daily rhythms." You'll buy products as you search for them from your front seat. You'll be doing Google's market research. Hey, for maximum efficiency Google drones could drop your purchases down to you while you're stuck in traffic.
So forgive me if I'm not as enthusiastic about the self-driving car. The fact that Google's latest prototype doesn't even have a steering wheel doesn't fill me with optimism. The prospect of going from driver to data module isn't attractive. Driving my minivan is already humiliating enough. Must it be turned into a rolling storefront? The advent of self-driving cars reminds me of Facebook. When that appeared everyone told me how great it was because "people you used to know can get in touch with you."
This may come as a shock, but people I used to know are called "people I used to know" for a reason. As in, I used to know them and now I don't want to any more. If this wasn't the case, they'd be called "people I know" and I'd be in touch with them. I passed on Facebook. So, while the rest of the world starts saving up for its self-driving saviours I'll be saving up for a 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle. They all come with a nice piece of technology – the steering wheel.
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