Driverless Cars and GPS: The Fearful Master

General Motors made a momentous announcement on January 12, 2018, as GM introduced the Cruise AV – potentially the world’s first commercially available self-driving automobile. The car has no steering wheel and is entirely directed by computer.  The promise of increased safety is expected to make the Cruise AV a commercial success. But consumers should think twice before accepting the loss of control that this technology will bring. 

Driverless cars contain innovations far too numerous to describe in this article, but the key piece is the GPS connection that allows the car to navigate to its destination. Built-in sensors allow the car to avoid accidents along the way, but the car depends mostly on mapping data from a central location in order to know where to go.  That is a very simplistic explanation, but it should tell you all that you need to know about how this technology will change your life.

Once your car becomes beholden to a central data center for its destination, you lose control not only of the car’s operation from moment to moment, but of your own ability to travel freely on a daily basis. Remember that GM’s Cruise AV has no steering wheel. You cannot take control of the car yourself.  You must give a destination to the GPS device so that your car can deliver you to that destination.  Programming your car before each trip will be the equivalent of an airplane pilot filing a “flight plan” before taking off. As fun as this idea might seem, there is a 900-pound elephant in the room that few people are discussing. Automobiles and transportation are among the most heavily regulated aspects of 21st century life. If you think that the regulators are simply going to allow you to plug any destination into a GPS and ride off without a care in the world, you are fooling yourself. 

The government has policy interests in your travel plans that are too numerous to mention. (1) Fuel rationing (“conservation”), (2) environmentalism, (3) traffic management, and (4) tax and municipal revenue collection are among the many goals that are more important than your quick trip to the convenience store or your daily commute to work.   

The government’s ability to restrict your travel for the above (and other) goals is currently limited. The government cannot now stop you from traveling without the aid of an army of local police patrolling the road. The police cannot stop or restrict you unless they catch you violating some traffic law or driving without proper license and registration. The government cannot deprive you of your license and registration without cumbersome court proceedings, at which proceedings you would have a lawyer by your side. 

But with a central databank controlling your car’s ability to follow the GPS directions to your destination, the government need not rely on the police or the courts to impede your travel. All of the benevolent policies of the bureaucratic state and the politicians that feed it will now be available to the government through control of the GPS system that directs your car.  Use your imagination while remembering the headlines and trends of government policy over the past 20 years.       

(1) Have you used up your allotment of fuel for the week?  You might find that the GPS will suddenly not work in your car until the following week arrives with its fresh allotment of permitted fuel purchases.  Gasoline rationing has always been difficult to enforce and subject to black markets and other abuses. But with GPS-controlled cars, rationing would be easy.  The government would control your car from a central location instead of trying to stop you from buying gasoline.  The computers would automatically know how much fuel you have used and would refuse to allow your driverless car to access mapping information until more days (or weeks) have elapsed.   

(2) Have you exceeded your pollution allotment (or “carbon credit”)?  The central computer can monitor your mileage.  Once you exceed a certain number of miles, you are a polluter that loses your GPS privileges for a while.  The government might no longer even need emissions inspections (but they will continue requiring them anyway).   

(3) Is there too much traffic in your city or suburb?  The central GPS control might be programmed to limit the number of cars that can be directed into the city on a daily basis. Who will be the lucky commuters that will be approved for limited travel allotments by the central computer?  Who will decide what is too much?  Urban planners have wrestled with these questions for decades. The individual commuter with his own car has been the nemesis of the urban planner.  But now the planner has a new weapon.  Instead of creating restricted lanes on the roads or empowering police to monitor the number of occupants of your car, the planners can simply input destination restrictions/limitations into the central computer.  Local politicians can lobby Washington to have limits increased in their city.  Local elections may turn on this issue.  The politician that can deliver the highest traffic allotment will have an advantage in campaigning for office.  Or maybe the local politicians would prefer a lower allotment in order to force the suburbanites to move back into the city and resume paying exorbitant city taxes, sewer rates, and public transportation fares.  Either way, traffic allotments will be the subject of political influence as various factions fight for control of the almighty GPS.

(4) All of this GPS coordination and control will be expensive.  The government will not provide this service for nothing.  If you expect to have your travel restricted, you will have to pay for the privilege.  Will they raise your income taxes?  Maybe.  But they will also charge you a fee in order to access GPS.  You might pay on a per trip basis or with a yearly subscription. Either way -- more miles will mean more money.  If you are going to ride anywhere, make your trip count by combining errands as much as possible.  Impulse travel, joyriding, and even sightseeing may become a thing of the past. 

Are you behind on your taxes (federal, state or local), sewer or refuse payments, or other unrelated government charges?  Your GPS privileges might be suspended until you get caught up.  The phrase “You can’t fight city hall” may suddenly take on a whole new meaning.

Are these scenarios unrealistic or far-fetched? That is what we used to think of socialized medicine. Yet ObamaCare remains (sort of) the law of the land.  Unlike ObamaCare, Congress might not even have to vote on some of these GPS/traffic scenarios. The government would merely be enforcing existing laws.  Regulatory bodies could enact regulations under the authority of existing enabling statutes.  Executive orders could fill in some gaps.  Your congressman may have no power to stop these powers from taking effect.  

The goals I suggest have been the subject of government programs for decades.  But now the government need not bother enacting another “Great Society” with the challenge of convincing skeptical voters. The regulators need only make their computers talk to each other.  The databases for GPS will talk to the databases for mileage, tax collection, law enforcement, etc.   Instead of society making this momentous decision, bureaucrats will simply plug certain computers into other computers as soon as the technology allows. 

You might hope to avoid this scenario by holding on to your steering wheel car as long as possible.  Do not count on that idea working for you either.  Many cities will make it illegal for you to drive an old-fashioned car on their streets. Expect even more limitations from the EPA/FTC/NHTSA/etc. The steering wheel may go the way of the incandescent light bulb. 

Less than ten years ago, the federal government destroyed almost 1,000,000 older cars in one quick program called “Cash for Clunkers.”  What I suggest here is less complicated.  Industry is already building the newer cars. The GPS system is already in place.  The regulators need only approve the cars, connect a few databases to GPS, approve the new fee schedules and allotment levels and life as we know it will change forever. 

It will not be as simple as I describe.  No regulatory scheme ever is.  Skynet will be not only a fearful master but a clumsy and inefficient one full of loopholes, exceptions, political manipulation, and unintended consequences.  The dislocations, disruptions and hardships will be far reaching, permanent and merciless.  Now is the time to focus our discussions on these predictable consequences before we find out the hard way how much of our freedom depends on our ability to control a steering wheel.  

General Motors made a momentous announcement on January 12, 2018, as GM introduced the Cruise AV – potentially the world’s first commercially available self-driving automobile. The car has no steering wheel and is entirely directed by computer.  The promise of increased safety is expected to make the Cruise AV a commercial success. But consumers should think twice before accepting the loss of control that this technology will bring. 

Driverless cars contain innovations far too numerous to describe in this article, but the key piece is the GPS connection that allows the car to navigate to its destination. Built-in sensors allow the car to avoid accidents along the way, but the car depends mostly on mapping data from a central location in order to know where to go.  That is a very simplistic explanation, but it should tell you all that you need to know about how this technology will change your life.

Once your car becomes beholden to a central data center for its destination, you lose control not only of the car’s operation from moment to moment, but of your own ability to travel freely on a daily basis. Remember that GM’s Cruise AV has no steering wheel. You cannot take control of the car yourself.  You must give a destination to the GPS device so that your car can deliver you to that destination.  Programming your car before each trip will be the equivalent of an airplane pilot filing a “flight plan” before taking off. As fun as this idea might seem, there is a 900-pound elephant in the room that few people are discussing. Automobiles and transportation are among the most heavily regulated aspects of 21st century life. If you think that the regulators are simply going to allow you to plug any destination into a GPS and ride off without a care in the world, you are fooling yourself. 

The government has policy interests in your travel plans that are too numerous to mention. (1) Fuel rationing (“conservation”), (2) environmentalism, (3) traffic management, and (4) tax and municipal revenue collection are among the many goals that are more important than your quick trip to the convenience store or your daily commute to work.   

The government’s ability to restrict your travel for the above (and other) goals is currently limited. The government cannot now stop you from traveling without the aid of an army of local police patrolling the road. The police cannot stop or restrict you unless they catch you violating some traffic law or driving without proper license and registration. The government cannot deprive you of your license and registration without cumbersome court proceedings, at which proceedings you would have a lawyer by your side. 

But with a central databank controlling your car’s ability to follow the GPS directions to your destination, the government need not rely on the police or the courts to impede your travel. All of the benevolent policies of the bureaucratic state and the politicians that feed it will now be available to the government through control of the GPS system that directs your car.  Use your imagination while remembering the headlines and trends of government policy over the past 20 years.       

(1) Have you used up your allotment of fuel for the week?  You might find that the GPS will suddenly not work in your car until the following week arrives with its fresh allotment of permitted fuel purchases.  Gasoline rationing has always been difficult to enforce and subject to black markets and other abuses. But with GPS-controlled cars, rationing would be easy.  The government would control your car from a central location instead of trying to stop you from buying gasoline.  The computers would automatically know how much fuel you have used and would refuse to allow your driverless car to access mapping information until more days (or weeks) have elapsed.   

(2) Have you exceeded your pollution allotment (or “carbon credit”)?  The central computer can monitor your mileage.  Once you exceed a certain number of miles, you are a polluter that loses your GPS privileges for a while.  The government might no longer even need emissions inspections (but they will continue requiring them anyway).   

(3) Is there too much traffic in your city or suburb?  The central GPS control might be programmed to limit the number of cars that can be directed into the city on a daily basis. Who will be the lucky commuters that will be approved for limited travel allotments by the central computer?  Who will decide what is too much?  Urban planners have wrestled with these questions for decades. The individual commuter with his own car has been the nemesis of the urban planner.  But now the planner has a new weapon.  Instead of creating restricted lanes on the roads or empowering police to monitor the number of occupants of your car, the planners can simply input destination restrictions/limitations into the central computer.  Local politicians can lobby Washington to have limits increased in their city.  Local elections may turn on this issue.  The politician that can deliver the highest traffic allotment will have an advantage in campaigning for office.  Or maybe the local politicians would prefer a lower allotment in order to force the suburbanites to move back into the city and resume paying exorbitant city taxes, sewer rates, and public transportation fares.  Either way, traffic allotments will be the subject of political influence as various factions fight for control of the almighty GPS.

(4) All of this GPS coordination and control will be expensive.  The government will not provide this service for nothing.  If you expect to have your travel restricted, you will have to pay for the privilege.  Will they raise your income taxes?  Maybe.  But they will also charge you a fee in order to access GPS.  You might pay on a per trip basis or with a yearly subscription. Either way -- more miles will mean more money.  If you are going to ride anywhere, make your trip count by combining errands as much as possible.  Impulse travel, joyriding, and even sightseeing may become a thing of the past. 

Are you behind on your taxes (federal, state or local), sewer or refuse payments, or other unrelated government charges?  Your GPS privileges might be suspended until you get caught up.  The phrase “You can’t fight city hall” may suddenly take on a whole new meaning.

Are these scenarios unrealistic or far-fetched? That is what we used to think of socialized medicine. Yet ObamaCare remains (sort of) the law of the land.  Unlike ObamaCare, Congress might not even have to vote on some of these GPS/traffic scenarios. The government would merely be enforcing existing laws.  Regulatory bodies could enact regulations under the authority of existing enabling statutes.  Executive orders could fill in some gaps.  Your congressman may have no power to stop these powers from taking effect.  

The goals I suggest have been the subject of government programs for decades.  But now the government need not bother enacting another “Great Society” with the challenge of convincing skeptical voters. The regulators need only make their computers talk to each other.  The databases for GPS will talk to the databases for mileage, tax collection, law enforcement, etc.   Instead of society making this momentous decision, bureaucrats will simply plug certain computers into other computers as soon as the technology allows. 

You might hope to avoid this scenario by holding on to your steering wheel car as long as possible.  Do not count on that idea working for you either.  Many cities will make it illegal for you to drive an old-fashioned car on their streets. Expect even more limitations from the EPA/FTC/NHTSA/etc. The steering wheel may go the way of the incandescent light bulb. 

Less than ten years ago, the federal government destroyed almost 1,000,000 older cars in one quick program called “Cash for Clunkers.”  What I suggest here is less complicated.  Industry is already building the newer cars. The GPS system is already in place.  The regulators need only approve the cars, connect a few databases to GPS, approve the new fee schedules and allotment levels and life as we know it will change forever. 

It will not be as simple as I describe.  No regulatory scheme ever is.  Skynet will be not only a fearful master but a clumsy and inefficient one full of loopholes, exceptions, political manipulation, and unintended consequences.  The dislocations, disruptions and hardships will be far reaching, permanent and merciless.  Now is the time to focus our discussions on these predictable consequences before we find out the hard way how much of our freedom depends on our ability to control a steering wheel.