Automated Vehicles. Driverless conveyance. Self-driving cars. Mobility and human progress have always been deeply intertwined, thus the rise of a transportation means independent of human involvement and intervention would then have vast, albeit currently un-anticipatable second and third order effects on virtually every facet of human life. From the earliest records of human kind, the human need to control and to progress the means of transportation has been evident: from the domestication of horse power to first expand the war-making powers of states, to its ability to expand human society rapidly by covered wagon across distant lands. The invention of the Newcomen and Watt steam engines and then the locomotive engine provided the affordable, basic mobility necessary for the ascendency of the Anglo empires – for the industrial revolution first in Great Britain in the 19th Century and then in the United States in the 20th. Advancements in rail mobility changed the way European Armies were resupplied, the way entrepreneurs of the US reconstructionist South ensured the continued supply of raw goods to textile factories in the North; the way the exotic destinations of the North American and Eurasian Continents – from Yosemite and Yellowstone in the American West, to Thomas Cook’s rail excursions of the near east – were not just photographs in magazines, but became actual destinations for the intrepid. Certainly, human progress has always been bound to issues of transportation and mobility. The power of the train made possible an international supply system in which cattle raised in in Texas could be delivered to stockyards in Chicago by way of Kansas City, be slaughtered and shipped to the ports of New York, and then loaded on ships for the markets of the Old World. In the most recent, and perhaps greatest advancement in human transportation, the mastery of the Bernoulli Principle by two bicycle mechanics from Ohio on the North Carolina coast at Kitty Hawk, brought about conventional flight, the subsequent age of airpower in both World Wars, the age of international jet setting, and then its logical conclusion, the advent of space flight and the rise of spacefaring nations. In every new mode of transportation, humans have met old needs with new technology, proving time and again that growth and development to the benefit of mankind has been reliant on that ability to relocate much needed commodities and human capital at ever-greater degrees of efficiency. All have been testament to the extraordinary power that transportation has played in writing the chapters of human history.
Today we are at the dawn of yet another great leap forward in human mobility. For the first time in human history, the basic benefits of mobility will no longer require the skill nor experienced judgment of an actual human being to operate the form of conveyance. At the dawn of this new age, Automated Vehicles (AV) powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) have the potential to change many of our fundamental assumptions about everything from the fixed costs in economic models, to the deliverability of weapon systems in war, and even down to our assumptions about the limits of independence placed on the more than 2 million blind Americans who currently rely on others for their basic mobility. Certainly there will be difficulties along the way in establishing norms, laws, and procedures for the conduct and rules of the road for a nation of motorists no longer bound to the task of driving. There are advocates and detractors on both sides of the debate which have sprung up in the last few years that self-driving cars have become a just-beyond-reach technology. Their concerns have been as real as their hopes, and all will ultimately benefit from deep reflection on the nature of mobility and freedom, on the ways in which we use our vehicles to help and to harm one another, and on what the song of the open road means to us all.
In the first of a four-part blog series on Automated Vehicles, we begin by examining just what exactly we mean when we say “self-driving car,” and what that technology may look like in the near future. This blog series will examine the case for, and the case against AVs, and conclude with an examination of whether the Car, a fundamental extension of identity in America, can ever be truly reduced to a mere utilitarian mode of transportation, or if it rather shall always be the identity marker and cultural icon it is today.