“The world is going to go to self-driving and autonomous,” says Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalancik, noting that if Uber didn’t lead that trend “the future passes us by basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.” As if glancing into the rear view mirror to make sure no one was gaining on it, Uber promptly introduced the first autonomous cars into its Pittsburgh fleet and purchased a self-driving truck start-up.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. announced its intention to produce autonomous cars without pedals and steering wheels by 2021.
Collectively, these statements and actions led me to ask – why is there an implicit assumption that the technological change of autonomy is inevitable? And, if its adoption is inevitable, shouldn’t we also be addressing the inevitable challenges that will result from its widespread adoption?
Technology blinds us into having a belief in its inevitability — we get so caught up in the coolness of it all. Or, perhaps the progress is a reflection of a freely moving, creative society.
In our excitement about technological advances, we often leave ourselves short on thinking through its implications.
The most obvious question raised by widespread adoption of autonomous technologies is the effect on employment. At the very same time it’s running compelling national TV ads to attract human drivers, Uber is planning those drivers’ technological replacement. A trucking company that uses the autonomous technology just acquired by Uber may become more efficient, but it will also displace truck drivers, one of the largest remaining high-paying jobs available without a technical education.
What role will humans play in autonomous transportation businesses? Will they become minimum wage-earning night watchmen, sitting in a truck cab while the truck itself drives 20 hours a day? Will there still be a need for a “driver” in an autonomous taxi to make sure that they are kept clean and undamaged?
Another question relates to how we will live in harmony with autonomous transportation technologies. Consider the underlying assumption that autonomous cars will be safer and cut down on traffic. Yes, autonomous cars will likely be able to travel more closely together, thereby cutting down on the stop-and-start driving that creates a traffic jams. And the safety expectation is based on the simple reality that humans are often really bad drivers. Those assumptions make technical sense.
However, how will autonomous cars and human drivers co-exist on our highways? Will we outlaw cars driven by humans? Set up special lanes for autonomous cars? Or, just accept the inevitable free-for-all that will undoubtedly occur? The next time someone cuts you off on the Capital Beltway while texting and drinking coffee, consider how computer software might address this moment.
Finally, consider the issue of legal liability for product defects. In software, for instance, a developer is not usually responsible if a software defect causes a user loss of revenue or customers. On the other hand, automobile manufacturers are far more exposed, as General Motors has learned in connection with its ignition systems. When autonomous cars controlled by software crash, and people are injured, what will manufacturers’ liability be?
These are just a few questions that come to me when I consider autonomous transportation. Does this mean I don’t value progress? Of course I do.
My point is that in our rush to the next “new” thing, we should appreciate that the ancillary effects of technology should not be ignored. What we see in the adoption of autonomous technology is as true for many emerging technologies – artificial intelligence, precision medicine and the commercialization of space are other areas where the technological changes to come will create large social challenges.
To all of us this means that a discussion about the inevitability of technological change is not the end of the conversation. It should be the beginning.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.