The Auto-mobiles of Xanadu

My resourceful wife got me, somehow, a free subscription to Popular Science.  I just finished reading this cover story about autonomous cars from the September issue.  As with much of the magazine, it’s half science, and half speculation that probably doesn’t quite make the cut for hard SF.  The science in this article is reasonably interesting, but the speculation that’s going on is just plain scary.

The central real-life example used here was a prototype car that talked to the traffic light ahead to figure out when the light was going to turn green, and cruised through without braking unnecessarily.  Fine.  That’s cool, and vaguely useful.  But then the SF takes over and gets creepy.  For instance:

That near-literal leap of faith illustrates a trade-off that we will all soon face. For Liccardo’s stoplight experiment to be safe in the real world, every car would have to communicate not just with the lights but also with every surrounding car. Yet some engineers dream of a system in which decisions about stopping and starting are left to computers. Humans, with our propensity for random and potentially disastrous action, would be removed from the equation, and the motion of individual cars would be coordinated like packets negotiating a journey across the Internet. Which sounds a bit frightening. But if we were to trust the system that much, to let go of the wheel entirely, we might gain a great deal. Cars could travel in self-guided traffic swarms, moving within inches of each other, cruising through stop lights with milliseconds to spare. Traffic would decrease, and fuel efficiency would increase—theoretically, at least.

Once you start talking like this, pretty soon you have to ask: Why are we driving cars at all?  The automobile used to be a symbol (and a means) of personal independence.  How much independence exists in this futuristic vision?  “Self-guided traffic swarms” sounds about as appealing as a hive mind, and probably for similar reasons.

Time was, folks drove cars because they thought driving was fun.  The cars being described in the article assume as a first principle that driving is boring, and must therefore be replaced by other (specifically computer-based) forms of entertainment:

…distraction will be exactly what we seek as we while away the commute in our idiotproof pleasure domes. …. Soon, social-networking applications will allow drivers to communicate with one another as if chatting online.

Um, but why not just roll down the window?

Then comes augmented reality: information about the landscape ahead being projected into the driver’s field of vision, like an annotated windshield. The road itself could become another layer of entertainment.

Again I have to ask: why are we driving cars?  Wouldn’t it be simpler, cheaper, and more environmentally sound to simply increase the rail network of the country and go back to taking the train?  (Cf. any major city in Europe.)  If you actually have a commute so long you want to be bumming around on FaceBook, why not cut out the driving altogether?  Why not watch your Blu-Ray on your nine-inch tablet instead of your four-inch dashboard screen?  In fact, why not walk over to the dining car, have a three-course meal and a drink, and talk with fellow travelers while you’re at it?  One bullet train and the guy or two driving it may or may not be smarter than a thousand computerized cars (depends on how you’re tallying IQ points), but I dare say they’re a lot cheaper.

I guess I’m saying, are we REALLY simplifying and improving our lives by outfitting every one of several billion cars with a Mars Rover’s worth of sensors, cameras, gyros, antennae, and microchips?  And furthermore, if we’re working our tails off to create (or, as consumers, to afford) “idiotproof pleasure domes,” don’t we have to stop and ask: “What exactly does that make us?”

I think some of these engineers and dreamers need to go back and watch Wall-E and consider what societal goals we’re really trying to attain.


… On the other hand, I do derive a wry sort of comfort from reviewing the old cover art of this magazine, and considering what fraction of its predictions have made the cut into actuality….

September 1917 cover

December 1932 cover


One thought on “The Auto-mobiles of Xanadu

  1. Jonathan K. says:

    I think the science of the future will involve more ambulatory locomotion. (Walking.)

    Trains are good too.

    Although that first picture is amazing. The future should definitely have Unicycle Dispatch Riders.

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