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THE ENTIRE Sunday magazine of The New York Times, November 12, 2017, is devoted to “Life After Driving.” Perhaps this is no big deal for those living in the Big Apple: “I go somewhere, I take a cab.”
On the other hand, the magazine’s 82 pages of essays and art are thought-provoking. In time, many of its predictions may well come to pass—though there are wild-card spoilers. What follows here are selected points from the articles annotated by comments of your author, a long-standing enthusiast of the automobile, albeit not necessarily of autonomous ones.
Turmoil in transition is bound to occur, just as it did more than a century ago when horses gave way to horsepower. The cries of “Get a horse!” and early motorists scaring horse-and-buggies into the ditch were part of the earlier transition.
However, I believe they’re nothing like the discord to be expected when some vehicles on the road are human-piloted and others are under autonomous control and logic.
Even more deadly will be the initial transition to SAE Level 3 vehicles. These have “Conditional Automation,” in which the ”human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.”
Now you tell one.
Megacities versus small towns have dramatically different perspectives on things like ride-sharing and autonomous on-demand. These demographic distinctions may influence success or failure of autonomous vehicles, just as they have our recent presidential election.
One of the essays discusses Singapore, the government of which is trying to curb car ownership. Eighty percent of Singapore residents live in dense, high-rise housing. By contrast, 2015 U.S. data suggested that 26 percent of Americans described where they lived as urban, 53 percent as suburban, and 21 percent as rural.
By the way, in researching this, I learned that U.S. Census data lump together urban and suburban into a single perhaps misleading 79-percent “urban.”
The personal automobile as status symbol is part of our culture. Imagine inviting your pals over to see your new refrigerator or even a new computer system. Are even non-enthusiasts ready to give up this pleasure?
In-vehicle leisure holds a promising aspect: Once driving is under completely autonomous control, the car’s occupants are free to do pretty much anything they like during their travel. One essay notes that this includes the tantalizing idea of sex in cars.
There’s nothing particularly new in this: Author John Steinbeck wrote of the 1920s, “Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few born in them.”
But what about when the car is in motion?
Tesla is offered as a paradigm of automotive and corporate innovation: “For Elan Musk,” one of the essay’s subhead reads, “autonomous driving is just a pit stop on the road to a better planet.” A particularly striking prediction is made: “After five years, Tesla will become the Apple of the industry…. Tesla will be the iPhone of cars—more elegant, better designed.”
Hmm…. In May 2017, Apple confirmed a cash reserve of $250 billion. True, the company is not without tax breaks and clever international ploys, but nothing akin to Tesla’s government subsidies. And did Apple ever help its bottom line by selling clean-talk credits to smut-phone services?
The dead pizza guy is cited as a possible, if unlikely, accompaniment of autonomous cars. Or, even more distressing, suppose your dinner guest’s car arrives, but the guest passed away on the ride there.
The potential—no, make that the certainty—of hackers is perhaps the most likely deal-disrupter of an autonomous-vehicle future. It’s bad enough having your home or office computer held hostage, but what if it’s your car—while you’re traveling in it?
What’s more, resulting litigations would be lawyer’s paradise: Who is responsible? The hacker? The vehicle manufacturer? The car owner? All three?
The Museum of Driving forms the magazine’s Endpaper. It’s not completely a reductio ad absurdum. I’ve already enjoyed a Monster Truck theme park at a Mitsubishi dealership in Japan. The idea of an artificial snow rink for cars sounds like fun. The Drag Race, Drive-In Movie, and Parallel Parking are nice touches.
And I’d be happy to participate in the Vintage-Car Parade. Indeed, maybe the future isn’t that dismal after all. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017