Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming
When the first adumbrations of a new technology appear, thoughtful people try to discern the likely future implications. Today, a lot of thoughtful people are worrying about the impact of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Jobs will be lost. People will feel robbed of agency. What are the ethical implications of software making life-or-death decisions?
While such weighty questions do deserve some thought, they are in fact completely irrelevant to the adoption of AVs.
We humans are evolved to seek the path of least resistance because for 98% of our evolutionary history that was the strategy that would most likely aid survival. Expending excess energy on an unnecessary task burned calories that could be needed for moments of exigency. So we are adapted to do as little as possible, both physically and mentally. This is why today, surrounded by an excess of calories and a plethora of entertainments, most of us are fat and indolent and our heads are filled with ephemeral trivia. Furthermore, we have a built-in bias to keep doing whatever is familiar because that’s generally the easiest thing to do.
So how are people going to be persuaded to adopt AVs?
The Dunning-Kruger effect means that 99% of drivers hugely over-estimate their competence, imagining themselves to be “better than average” drivers, even as they update their InstaSnap accounts on their smartphones while attempting to cross three lanes of commuter traffic by means of one wrist limply draped across the top of the steering wheel. AVs would rob the average person of their sense of agency. AV marketing folk worry about this a lot.
It is, however, not a problem. Instead of attempting to address the loss of agency, clever AV marketers will simply circumvent the problem entirely. We have the example of Orwell Boxes to illustrate this phenomenon. Today, millions of people have enthusiastically spent their own money to put third-party surveillance devices into their own homes. Why? Because these were designed to appeal to human nature. They are cute, they glow in pretty colors, and they mimic human responsiveness. No one who buys one of these devices thinks for a moment about the fact that literally anyone with a few dollars and some time to spare can use them to overhear every conversation within range, record those conversations, and store them away for future use.
People download dozens — or even hundreds — of apps to their phones, never once considering that many of these apps effectively track every single thing the user does: every call, every message sent, every Google search, every direction provided by the GPS system. Mostly this knowledge is used to serve up ads but the fact is that anyone willing to spend a few dollars can in this way build up a very comprehensive picture of another person’s life — without the target being aware of it in any way (and no, your iPhone doesn’t protect you, no matter what the marketing messages claim). In the next few years we are certain to read about pedophiles using this easily-available data to track and target vulnerable youngsters. But even then, no one will stop using their phones and no one will stop downloading app after app. People will merely agitate, for a short while, for “better security” while ensuring by their own actions that such demands are futile.
Why do people spend money on things that can harm them? Because it’s fashionable. People were taught to smoke cigarettes by the movies and today the Internet is even more powerful at telling people what to do. If an influencer goes viral with a tattoo video, millions rush out to cover themselves in ink. If someone says “plank” or “ice bucket challenge” then millions obediently follow suit. People are hardwired to follow the herd, to do what others are doing, and give the matter no thought whatsoever. The best marketing ploys ensure whatever they’re trying to sell seems both fashionable and fun!
Makers of AVs would do well to focus on this simple equation.
Instead of trying to sell benefits such as improved safety, reduced pollution, and all the rest of the things no one actually cares about, AV manufacturers need to focus on the superficial aspects of their products. Form a marketing partnership with Disney for AVs that take children to school. What seven-year-old wouldn’t love to be transported to school in a Frozen-mobile or an AV based on whatever new transiently popular character is flavor du jour? What teen wouldn’t love to arrive in a sci-fi vehicle, especially if the time twixt home and school can be filled by playing some violent and suitably misogynistic video game?
As for adults, imagine AVs with screens everywhere and surround-sound. For some the tedium of the morning commute can be transformed into a pleasing sojourn spent among the thrusts and moans of Internet pornography; for others a frenetic sequence of social media posts will enable the minutes to pass unregarded. If a deal with Starbucks can be arranged so that beverages and comestibles can be provided within the AV during the trip, AVs will quickly become essential in people’s lives.
Provided enough influencers, movies, and TV shows pump out the right messages, people will rush to embrace AVs. Worries about AI ethics and loss of agency will vanish unremembered as people chatter happily to each other about the wondrous benefits AVs confer. Perhaps some will come with huge vanity mirrors so that people can attend to their appearance as the vehicle carries them to their destination. Others will no doubt hire AVs containing sumptuous beds that provide opportunities for discrete liaisons both planned and impromptu. Doubtless some enterprising script writer will conjure up Sex and the AV, thus encouraging millions to experience the joys of “your best ride ever!”
All these applications assume on-demand service, so the Japanese model of public toilets will need to be studied carefully. No customer will want to climb into an AV to find a pool of vomit in the footwell or bodily fluids sticking to the seat covers. But this is a problem amenable to solution by appropriate technology and so will, except in a few extreme cases, be unproblematic.
For personal AVs where ownership is retained in much the same way as the family car of today, the trick will be to remember that (in the USA at least) the automobile is less a mode of transportation and more a mode of wish-fulfillment. Paunchy middle-aged men aspire to sports cars in a vain attempt to persuade the world of their hidden virility. Mistrustful soccer moms love pretend SUVs for the illusion of self-reliance they foster. Personally-owned AVs will therefore only be successful if they can likewise focus on engendering desirable illusion. Fortunately there are many different kinds of illusion, ranging from the classic “save the planet by buying our hunk of metal” (Toyota Prius) to the “be cool by buying our latest toy!” (Tesla, following the example of Apple). So the field is wide open and can easily be filled with a wide range of different vehicles, each appealing to a particular niche.
Sooner or later, marketing departments will grasp the basics and as a result the roads of the developed nations will increasingly be populated by AVs. We humans, however, will remain unchanged and so the occasional blip will inevitably occur. The mass media will continue to rely on sensationalist nonsense in order to generate revenues, so the very rare AV-related death will by hyped out of all proportion and no one at all will remember that every year nearly 1,500,000 people used to die in road traffic accidents arising from generic human incompetence. A scare story will ensure people will temporarily be frightened out of using a particular brand of AV, or perhaps a particular color, but everyone will soon forget and resume using that brand because the media will then push some new scare story due to the fact there’s only so much mileage that can be made out of crashes, just as there’s only so much mileage that can be made out of celebrity gossip or political inanities.
Provided we’re entertained and provided we don’t have to make any effort, we will adopt all manner of toys and shape our superficial behavior accordingly. So long as AVs are marketed to appeal to our inner children and are designed to accommodate ever-increasing passenger girth, their adoption is assured.
The only question is: when will the first AV with built-in toilet appear on the roads? Because when it does, it will be a thunderous success.