The Coming of the Auto-Auto
The automobile constituted a major turning point in the history of the industrial revolution. It dramatically increased mobility and the ease and speed of transportation. It forever transformed the American economy and culture itself. It was embraced rapidly by the masses but reviled by many of the cultural elites, as anyone familiar with Booth Tarkington's classic novel The Magnificent Ambersons (or Orson Welles's movie based on it) can attest. It has been the focus of hostility among those cultural elites ever since. Well, not to shock those culture mavens, but some recent stories suggest that the ultimate turning point in the history of the car may finally be at hand.
The stories report that autonomous (auto-piloted) automobiles ("auto-autos") -- meaning ones that drive themselves without the owner having to do more than tell the car where to take him -- are now within sight. One report from the WSJ reports that Mercedes Benz is testing an advance-stage auto-auto, identifying bugs in the software. That software is formidably complex: an auto-auto has to be able to react instantly to an object dropped in front of a car, say, or major potholes. However, while Dr. Ralf Hertwich, lead engineer at the Mercedes Benz autonomous vehicle research team, puts the day when auto-autos are finally available at more than ten years away, Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, says that they will be available in seven years.
In fact, there is a space-race going on among the major carmakers to see who can come up with the first fully functional auto-auto, with Volvo promising to "injury-proof" its cars by 2020, and automotive supplier Continental entering into a joint venture with IBM to create auto-auto technology.
Automakers have been making significant strides towards the auto-auto goal for quite some time. In 2007, Lexus offered an option for automatic parallel parking -- parallel parking being a skill most human drivers have at best poorly mastered. Mercedes shortly thereafter offered radar-controlled cruise control, as well as optically assisted lane-change software, as optional packages.
Moreover, Google has been operating a fleet of auto-piloted Lexuses and Priuses, a fleet that has operated for hundreds of thousands of mile without any problems. But then, the Google program is headed by legendary Sebastian Thrun, who used to head Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Google is so confident of this technology that last month alone it put a quarter of a billion bucks into Uber, a "car-sharing" company. The idea is that you need never own a car -- you could just order one for the day, and it would drive itself to your house, take you where you want, and then return to its home station.
What is the appeal of auto-autos? Is it just the latest techno-gadget, like the iPhone?
Hardly. Auto-autos offer a huge array of benefits.
Start with a quantum-leap increase in consumer satisfaction. People spend an enormous amount of time and energy driving. I, for one, am weary after my hour-long commute to work. If I could relax with my coffee and read my newspaper, I would be much happier and more rested at work.
Second, there would be an explosive growth of productivity. We already see that cell phones have allowed people to conduct business in the car to a limited degree, and companies such as The Teaching Company allow drivers to listen to college lectures as they drive. Freed from the need to drive at all, commuters would be free to take online courses (MOOCs) on their laptops, talk business with others via Skype, watch the news on flat-screen TVs in the car, or shop by internet.
Moreover, as futurist Norman Bel Geddes predicted back in 1939, auto-autos will be able to drive much faster and far more efficiently than people, dramatically dropping commute times, thus cutting wasted hours. This is because the auto-autos will be able to communicate with all the other cars on the road electronically, along with road beacons and police agencies.
Additionally, auto-autos will enable many women to return to the workforce earlier, as their children will be safely taken to and from school.
Third, and most importantly, auto-autos will save lives. The U.S. alone saw about 33,000 people killed and 69,000 injured in automobile accidents in 2010 alone.
We can only sadly guess at the enormous loss to society of those killed and maimed for life in auto accidents. Remember here that most of those lost are disproportionately younger people, often just beginning to contribute to society their creativity and energy.
Of course, as a recent piece in The Economist notes, the gale -- nay, the hurricane -- of creative destruction that auto-autos will bring doubtlessly will cost many current workers their jobs. Obviously, taxicab- and truck-drivers will likely take a hit, as will traffic enforcement police officers. Since automobile accidents are responsible for 2 million hospital visits a year, it is probable that some emergency room staff may be cut.
Of course, the auto insurance industry will shrivel to virtually nothing, with a lot of agents and brokers losing their jobs. So will manufacturers of traffic signs and lights, as those functions will be programmed into the auto-autos or road beacons.
And a group The Economist article doesn't mention will also take a big hit: auto body repair shops.
Also doubtlessly, as the reality of auto-autos approaches these special interest groups will turn to government to try to stop the spread of the new technology by whatever means necessary -- such as over-regulation. But in the end, there will be the new cars.
This is what the free market in automobiles -- embodying the distributed genius of consumers -- is delivering. What is the feeble intelligence of the soi-disant elites delivering to us?
What else? A continuing mad push to get all of us into mass transit! For example, the federal government continues to pour good money after bad into that farcical fossil AMTRAK; after over 40 years of taxpayer subsidies to the tune of maybe $20 billion, in 2011, the company still needed $1.3 billion in support.
And here in ultra-blue California, the geriatric "genius" Governor Moonbeam continues to push the bullet-train to nowhere project, projected to cost tens of billions of dollars the state can ill afford to spend.
Behold the mentality of the car-hating elite planners. These corrupt and arrogant planners continue to push mass transit, because in their "enlightened" view, it is what people should want. Meanwhile, the distributed genius of millions of people is converging rapidly on a truly brilliant solution to the problems of transportation -- a solution people actually do want.
Gary Jason is a philosopher and a senior editor of Liberty. He is the author of the book Dangerous Thoughts.