How do I turn this thing on?

February 22, 2017 § 11 Comments

Autonomous cars are coming. Conservative estimates believe that self-driving motor vehicles will be widespread as early as 2025. Some predictions have that year penned as early as 2021. For some, this revolution spells a new age of opportunity. For others, it heralds a job search. It also means that in four years, a large chunk of the teenage population will never learn to drive. In 25 years, that inability will apply to half the population.

From a broader economic standpoint, self-driving cars will likely be good for the economy in the long term. Reducing idle time spent commuting and traveling will likely spell higher productivity and efficiency. Commuters can now spend that time sleeping, working or eating. Of course, time spent in a moving car couldn’t possibly be as productive as the time a home or at a desk, but even if an hour in the car is worth 20% of a normal working hour, the US would save hundreds of billions of dollars a year. These numbers are rough and can be manipulated, but you see what I’m getting at.

Now, it would also cost the US anywhere between 3.5 and 5 million jobs. This wouldn’t be the first time a new piece of technology changed the job market. In the early 19th century, the textile mill dramatically increased the efficiency of cotton processing, forcing many workers out of a job. Temporarily, this caused an increase in unemployment, but the new efficient work model allowed more mills to open, creating new jobs. Similar results were observed with ATM’s and e-commerce sites like Amazon. Are there counter-arguments to this idea? Of course. Is it possible that the speed of technological advancement could outpace the labor market? Sure. I’m not particularly certain anyone knows exactly how autonomous cars will change the shape of the economy.

We can talk about the tangible benefits. Self-driving cars are pretty unequivocally safer than human-driven cars. About 35,000 people died in car crashes in 2015, 94% of which were from human error. Assuming self-driving cars could eliminate just half of those mistakes, they would save around 16,000 lives. Automated cars would reduce traffic and the overall number of vehicles on the road, limiting pollution.

However, people don’t like the idea of a machine controlling their life. Psychologically, we feel that we would rather another human be in control than a “mindless” device. Self-driving cars won’t be perfect. If (when) someone is killed by a self-driving vehicle, we’ll start to feel as though our lives are in the hands of some automated being that we can’t understand. At least when it was another human’s fault, we could sympathize or place blame.

This is just one example of how the emergence of different forms of AI will integrate into our lives. As we gain more potential, we also gradually lose perspective. We’ve spoken in class about the worker distancing himself/herself from his or her work. The self-driving car would provide another example of this phenomenon. This is because we’d lose connection with where we work or where we live. If getting there just requires climbing in a box and entering a location, how could we possibly feel connected to where were going? We won’t even know how to get there.

Driving is not the first task we’ve automated. We have washing machines, dishwashers, escalators and countless other devices designed to save time and effort. What does this say about AI in general? Does it simply take the part of something in your life, allowing you to use that energy for something else? What is lost in the process?


Walker, Alissa. “Will Self-driving Vehicles Really Make Cities Safer?” Curbed. Curbed, 21 Sept. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Knapman, Chris. “How Long until We Have Fully Driverless Cars?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 19 May 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

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§ 11 Responses to How do I turn this thing on?

  • elizabeth1315 says:

    Autonomous cars will drastically change our transportation systems, likely for the better, as you have laid out. These cars will likely save lives, time, and money for the aggregate economy in the long run.

    The short-term impact of autonomous cars on the economy is something in question and rightfully so. After all, according to the Department of Transportation, one out of every seven jobs is transportation related. This means that a lot of workers could potentially be hit by the move to automated driving. For drivers nearing retirement, it may be difficult to find new work or receive training for a new industry. Younger workers will certainly have a leg up in this aspect, but they, too, will potentially need to find new jobs. With the statistics you have given us, the long-term impact seems much more positive, as it could lead to an increase in productivity and efficiency, which is something we should strive for.

    I think it’s important to note, however, that even though we are moving towards autonomous cars, we aren’t necessarily kicking humans out of the transportation industry quite yet. Even if self-driving cars are widespread within the next five or ten years, they will likely continue to rely on human help in the beginning. As we progress towards this reality, it appears that the solution to this will be remote operators, something car companies are beginning to develop. While I don’t know much about how that works, the best way that I can explain it is that it is possible that we will need control jobs for cars that are similar to air-traffic control jobs for airplanes. These operators will be able to give the car new directions if it runs into a problem that it doesn’t quite know how to solve. An example of such a problem may be a construction area that closes one lane on a two-lane highway, requiring traffic to take turns to pass the construction site. In these situations, we have humans standing at both ends with stop/go signs telling us when it is safe to pass, even if the traffic light is red. At least in the beginning stages, an autonomous car would need a human operator helping out, so that it knows that it is safe to both go through the red light and to go into the “wrong” lane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As we move towards self driving cars becoming the norm, one of my main concerns is the transition period to that norm as there would be a significant number of both human drivers and self driving cars on the road. How would the human population of drivers interact with this “AI” population and how could AI take human error into account when making decisions that could mean life or death on the road?

      We have already seen cases of self driving cars getting into accidents with human drivers due to the human running a red light or switching lanes carelessly. Until a method is devised to keep the humans of both types of cars safe during the transition period, I am hesitant to push towards self driving cars becoming the norm.

      Additionally, this transition period will allow us to investigate the interactions between humans and AI in normal situations that could potentially be life threatening. We don’t like to think about it, but driving a car is one of the most statistically dangerous activities to do. With the introduction of an AI controlled car, how would this change our perspective on responsibility and accountability? What regular driving decisions would humans make on the road knowing that the car in their lane could very well be AI controlled? How would the AI behave in response to another AI or a human driver?

      The concept of the self driving car is ambitious and I’m excited for what its future holds. However, this excitement is not without its share of concerns.


  • zachgospe says:

    It is exciting to imagine a future in which all vehicles on the road are able to communicate in transit. Accidents and traffic would be greatly reduced, as you have mentioned, and many billions of dollars would be saved due to the increased efficiency. This future is one worth striving for, and one that is just over the horizon.

    Certainly, as with the adoption of any technology, the coming of autonomous vehicles will not be safe or without loss. The labor market will have to shift as transport jobs are replaced by machinery, and no doubt this process will be economically devastating for certain individuals. Yet, it is unlikely that the coming of autonomous driving will spark any widespread economic catastrophe.

    The onset of self-driving cars will in no way be a sudden event. The change will be relatively gradual and therefore controllable. As autonomous vehicles enter the market, only a small percentage of early adapters will take advantage of the technology; only certain delivery and transportation companies, as well as the upper class, will likely have the funds and ability to experiment with autonomous transportation in the first decade or so. Beyond these first few years, cost, availability, habit, and even the sheer love of driving will keep a large percentage of human-driven cars on the roads. Legal issues, as well, will certainly slow the onset. It is difficult to imagine a near future in which a simple majority of vehicles are completely autonomous.

    While an autonomous future is likely, it will not be unexpected or by any means immediate. Job loss will be gradual, and therefore can be responded to and mitigated as situations develop. Over the decades, as self-driving cars slowly begin to drop in cost and appear on the roads, the infrastructure of our society will adapt.

    At the end of your blog post, you raise the question of human connection: “If getting there just requires climbing in a box and entering a location, how could we possibly feel connected to where were going?” This is an interesting point, as it draws a comparison between public transportation and autonomous cars. Currently, getting on a bus, train, or plane is no different from getting into an autonomous vehicle. We do not know the driver, nor are connected to the driving process in any way. We do not need to know the route or flightpath, or even converse with other passengers. Considering your question from this perspective, I doubt any psychological change will take place when autonomous vehicles are the norm. Instead of a stranger driving the vehicle, it will be an A.I. In either case, there is no interaction with driver or route.

    Liked by 2 people

  • tiffjku says:

    Self-driving cars are interestingly not in as many sci-fi works as I would have thought, or at least the sci-fi works I have come across. We mostly focus on “flying cars.” However, self-driving cars have become the reality. I also think that the loss of jobs will be balanced with the opening of new jobs. However, these new jobs will not necessarily cater to those who lost their jobs previously. I believe that a new skill set will be needed in order to run and operate these new technologies. For example with the self-driving, creation such as uber and lift or chauffeurs will no longer be needed. So yes, more technology based occupations will arise, but those lift drivers more than likely don’t have the skill set to find a job in these eras (not to say that all lifi/uber drivers/chauffeurs don’t have the educational background to excel in a technology based occupation).

    Furthermore, there are the legal issues. If an automated car crashes, who is to blame? There will certainly be hackers, and thus far, it is a bit easy to hack a self-driving car. For example, Jonathan Petit said you could buy and assemble a device to spoof lidar ( This makes the vehicle think there were objects where they were not as well as the other way around. We will have to closely examine these issues and come up with new laws, which is pretty much another way of saying finding someone to blame for these malfunctions.

    To touch on the topic of “loss of connection to your destination” with self-driving cars, I wonder if sooner or later there will be an AI implemented into the cars that can talk back to you, whether in conversation or distance to destination like a GPS. Would that create more of a connection to where we are going? One girl in my class said that though she tries not to be prejudice or bigoted towards any person or creature, she was adamant in that she would be prejudiced towards AI’s because they are essentially not people. No matter what anyone says to her, she said she would refuse to think otherwise. I wonder how these people will react to an age where robots live among humans. Would people prejudiced to AI’s even use a self-driving car?

    Liked by 1 person

  • I think that there is there a strong argument to made that automation, including self-driving cars, may actually reverse the inequity-catalyzing phenomenon of the worker being distanced from their work. If I understand Marx’s theory of alienation correctly, workers become distanced from their work if their actions are dictated by the bourgeoisie (ruling class) whose goal is to capture the maximum amount of surplus value of the workers labor. Essentially, in order to capitalize on alienation, employers must limit their employees to narrow, specific tasks which, when combined, can create an end product significantly more profitable than the sum of the contributions of individual workers, which can then be sold to profit the bourgeoisie. Take, for example, the manufacture of automobiles, which we discussed in class. A worker in an auto plant may only attach one bolt, a narrowly focused, specific action with little economic value by itself. However, if a line of workers each perform a specific action, by the end of the line you have a car which can easily be sold for $20,000. The individual worker’s contributions are severely distanced from the final product, and since the act of tightening a bolt can be performed by almost anyone, there is little incentive to pay the worker a fair wage. One worker can’t build a car, therefore they are alienated from the true value of their work, which only become apparent once the company, who controls the means of production, on the sale of the car.

    Now let’s say the car company decides to replace some of its workers with robots. The company might take heat from employees for the jobs that have been lost, however, this temporary loss of employment may be better for the job market in the long term. While the auto workers have lost their jobs, they are also no longer expected to work in an environment where the marginal value of their labor is absorbed by their company. Though automating tasks such as manufacturing and truck driving results in job losses in the near future, it also minimizes our collective need to exploit the labor of workers in order to keep our society functioning at our desired level of comfort. Of course, in order to truly benefit such workers, we must have education and job training programs in place to empower displaced workers to pursue new careers, but it seems that automation may be able to do a tremendous amount of good towards breaking cyclical poverty and minimizing the wealth gap between workers and their employers.

    Liked by 1 person

  • mihirakonda says:

    In your post you discuss the immense improvements AI would make in our efficiency and capabilities as a species, but you also bring up things that could be lost in our seeking of greater efficiency. I completely agree with you there and want to question whether efficiency and attaining maximum production/output levels should really be our ultimate goal. You mention that self-driving cars would remove the need for a cognizance of where anything is and I would expand on this to say that if AI begins taking over more of the things we do in society we will be alienated from the why and how as well. To continue with the example of self-driving cars, we may not need to have a conception of locations and distances and so we may not know why we get in this box to get to work or the grocery store, or how the box does whatever it is that it does. To that point, even in our present world do we all really understand how systems like computers work? Or the internet for that matter? Personally, I could not tell you how they work in any real or practical terms. They are so much a part of our lives but already because they work without much effort or knowledge on the part of the users, we don’t have a concrete idea of their functioning.
    I find it difficult to conceptualize the meaning that can be found in a world in which humans are distanced from the where, how, and why of the structures that populate the world. It reminds me of the last Asimov story we read where the Machines make all the decisions in the interest of maximal efficiency, and the humans have absolutely no agency. Byerley has no idea why the Machines are making certain decisions and the Machines don’t let him know why until they deem it necessary. The rebellious group that is attempting to sabotage the economy can affect no change because the Machines are already taking them into consideration and not allowing them to affect the economy in any significant manner. It seems like all human autonomy and control over their circumstances would be lost.
    Well, this response is turning into a doomsday, prophetical type of thing so I just want to say that from all we’ve discussed in the course, the coming of a world full of AI seems inevitable and we should consider how we intend to maintain agency and control over our lives, without getting alienated from the where, how, and why of the world itself, in this coming era.


  • Olivia Peel says:

    I actually had a conversation this summer on a very analogous subject: the rise of 3D printing in the consumable goods industry. Basically, 3D printing has evolved to the point where we can essentially feed the machine meat cells and print out a steak (this is really not an exaggeration–unfortunately I can’t find the exact article I read this summer, but if you feel so inclined you can google “3D printed meat” and several articles will pop up).
    Right now this is a fairly expensive process as it is in its early stages. However, once the technology evolves, it has the potential to effectively end world hunger (this is a slight exaggeration, but not as much as you might think). Areas of the world with limited access to food could be granted such a printer (probably more than one for practical reasons) and would have the ability to literally print out food. Additionally, this would appease many animal rights activists as infinitely fewer cows/pigs/etc would be slaughtered for food.
    However, similar to self driving cars, this has the potential to cause a wide-spread loss of jobs. Not only ranchers, but every step along the supply chain would suffer a massive blow. So the question is, is it worth it?
    Personally I think yes. Not to sound harsh, but I am a scientifically minded person and tend to favor progress. On top of that, I am of the opinion that we give change too much credit. Things change much more slowly than we seem to think. For example, email and the internet have been around for decades. But still, millions of letters are sent through the USPS every day. Snail mail has not become obsolete. In this way I don’t think that people driving their own cars or people eating actual cows that were once alive will become obsolete. At least not for a very long time.


  • maplesmm says:

    A few years ago, when I began seriously considering the implementation of autonomous vehicles in our lives, I came to the conclusion that the best way to introduce such machines would be a gradual phase-in, with adjustments made to vehicles as we know them now until they become autonomous. It would be very clever for the car companies, and a psychologically sound means of introducing a potentially very disruptive machine into the lives of millions of travelers.
    Then, when I looked around, I realized that day was already here. From cars that beep when you get too close to another object, to self-parking features and lane-change assist, we are very close to relinquishing total control of our machines to those machines- the machines that empower so many 16 year olds with unforeseen levels of both responsibility and freedom. That said, I understand that this new age is not soon to be upon us – instead, it’s already here. (see:, 2015) With that, I think it’s high time that we start answering (we’ve been considering these for long enough) questions like this:
    Will the switch to autonomous cars be required? When will be the day that no human driver is allowed behind the wheel? I think this is a necessary adjustment, because just as the author mentioned that humans are responsible for 94% of car accidents, it will get exceedingly more complicated when fully human-controlled cars share the road with fully-autonomous.
    Will there be adjustments made to the current infrastructure system? Will we need stop lights and intersections as we know them, if all cars are connected on a large central switchboard? Bringing us to the question of whether our future will involve a centralized or a dispersed network, or some sort of combination of centralized, dispersed networks.
    And though there are many more, I will pose this final question: will we need age restrictions on vehicular operations anymore? Will my 11-year old cousin be able to hop into the family’s car and be driven to his buddy’s house to play? There’s no need for a trained, licensed adult to be in the car beyond simple supervision of the child.
    I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think this just skims the surface for what questions need to be considered carefully – and fast.


  • Alison Maas says:

    I think that your point that as soon as one automative accident occurs we will begin to feel like our lives are being taken over by machines is quite poignant. However, I think it raises a larger question of what role does fear play in this equation? For, the panic of rising technology is constant. Though self-driving cars would likely decrease the number of accidents, that one instance of malfunction would cause widespread panic about a mass malfunction. I am, of course, reminded if the movie IRobot. Though often ridiculous, this movie raises a similar point. Though humans have been murdering each other for centuries, what do we do when the one robotic exception comes along? Well, the answer is we panic and try to shut down robotics completely. However, the panic is indeed valid in many cases. Think of Ex Machina, in which the reversal of expected robotic functioning unleashed a questionably ethical being into the world. But, then again, how many human “questionably ethical beings” are there in the world.

    In order to advance and change, I believe that there must be hiccups along the way. Though unfortunate in their outcome, these malfunctions would only lead to improvements. In many cases, I think fear of the unknown halts progress and this will likely be the case with self-driving vehicles.


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