Drive All Over Town: Autonomy and Self-Driving Cars

Weirdness plus time equals normal. That’s true for just about everything. Consider when your favorite website changes format, for example. You gnash your teeth, pull your hair and swear vengeance to the heavens, but then you get used to it. By the time they change it up again, you regard the once-hated upgrade as the classic format that should be preserved in amber. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s perfectly human.

This resistance to, then inevitable acceptance of, change holds true for larger matters as well. Right now, we’re getting closer to self-driving cars being a fact of life. In his 30-year plan for improving American roadways, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx praised the idea of self-driving cars. With an admirable lack of subtlety, Foxx delivered his endorsement at Google headquarters and threw the weight of his department behind driverless vehicles. This seems weird only until we remember that we just aren’t accustomed to the notion yet. In fact, we’ve become comfortable with other autonomous machines that ferry us around. The thought of an autopilot-controlled airplane hurtling us through the air at hundreds of miles an hour doesn’t cause any of us to think twice. But there’s something about driving that feels different to a lot of people, but soon enough, it could become as normal as self-guided airplanes or missiles.

Magic carpet
Magic carpets- the first self-driving cars. Image from Wikimedia Commons, painting by Viktor M. Vasnetsov.

The 1001 Nights

The first instance of self-driving devices was likely the flying carpet in the 1001 Nights. In that endlessly magical and intoxicatingly recursive weave of tales also known as Arabian Nights, or (my personal favorite) The Thousand Nights and A Night, a prince asks if the carpet is extraordinary. He is told “You have guessed right, sir and will own as much when you come to know that whoever sits on this piece of carpet may be transported in an instant wherever he desires to go without being stopped by any obstacle.” (This seems to be from the Lang translation that is better than Burton, but there are better options.)

This is dream transportation – flying is great while sitting on a runway is terrible. Movement is always the goal of transportation, and when something gets in our way, we’re infuriated. Traffic makes raving loons out of rational people – screaming out threats and raining curses on complete strangers. Much better to have a chance to sit on a carpet, wish to be somewhere, and fly away.


This one is a bit of a cheat because trains aren’t truly autonomous, what with their conductors many of whom faced enormous danger in the service of getting people from point A to point B. But trains, whether transcontinental or subway, fulfill a goal of a set path that leads somewhere, with only intentional stops to pick up or drop off. A train has a set destination. It doesn’t have to yield to obstacles, deal with traffic or make a left instead of right because people are having a block party in October – what is wrong with them? Trains are the dream of purpose and the pure idea of motion.

Science Fiction

As cars became ubiquitous, they began to get more and more dangerous. More people on the roads driving meant more accidents, especially before the advent of safety regulations. Sci-fi writers, as usual, were on top of things, picturing a world where self-driving cars would eliminate the carnage that was beginning to reach catastrophic proportions. They imagined a future where people could step into a car, and it would take them where they want to go. This driverless taxi concept is much in the vein of what Google and Uber are inventing right now.

The DARPA Challenge and The Backlash

In 2005, DARPA issued a challenge to get self-driving cars across the desert, mostly for defense purposes. Defense innovations have a way of trickling down for common use (example #1: the internet). As we entered the era of mobile technology, GPS, and the interconnected internet of things, the idea that we could have self-driving cars has become a reality. But it isn’t without its backlash.

Mostly, people fear for their safety (odd considering the danger you face every time you drive) and the lack of autonomy. We like to make decisions for ourselves and worry about giving up too much control. The American dream of the open road isn’t just about driving, it is about the freedom to drive – to jump in a car and go somewhere without restrictions.

Right now, though, we don’t have the magic carpet. We don’t even have the train. We have an imperfect and inherently flawed system that doesn’t reward good driving and magnifies tiny mistakes. A self-driving system will correct that, flattening out the chance of error. It’s jumping onto a carpet and telling it where you want to go. You might not be soaring, but you’ll be doing a lot less screaming and cursing.

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