CNN – Tesla crash highlights real problem behind self-driving cars

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We think of automobiles as American as baseball, apple pie, and hotdogs – or at least that’s what the car advertisers have gotten us to believe.

But as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation into a fatal self-driving car accident should remind us, the automobile’s centrality to the American way of life was an expensive and political battle with nearly uncountable human casualties.

The latest permutation on this theme occurred in May, when a self-driving Tesla-S failed to register the side of a white tractor-trailer truck against a pale sky. In its statement on the accident, Tesla is quick to remind us that the 40-year-old man killed in the crash was a technology consultant and autonomous vehicle enthusiast — as if a martyr for the greater cause of civic transportation.

If anything, the cause of the crash can be chalked up to the incompatibility between humans and autonomous vehicles. Had the tractor-trailer also been driven by computer, it could have been on the same network as the Tesla. Like an air traffic control system, the network could have orchestrated the safe passage of both vehicles.

The problems emerge when computerized vehicles don’t have such networking at their disposal. Instead, we’re asking the poor Tesla to drive using the same senses mere humans use – which is why the car missed the fact that its entire field of vision was occupied not by sky, but by truck. As autonomous vehicle proponents like to point out, these problems would be solved if robotic cars weren’t required to share the road with humans. We people are the problem.

It’s an argument reminiscent of that made by early car manufacturers, who were being criticized for the high numbers of pedestrian injuries and fatalities on streets. The companies went on a massive public relations effort to shift the blame, and came up with the term “jay walker” to describe the country rube who didn’t know how to cross a street and was deserving of ridicule. Automobile clubs encouraged people to exterminate “the Jay Walker family” – and their little Walker children. Presumably, this was to be done through education, not running them over with cars.

We now assume automobiles have right of way – both on the roads, and as a social value – making it hard for us to imagine transportation solutions that don’t involve them. But it was actually hard to persuade people to purchase automobiles in the first place, and rightly so.

Back before automobiles, factory workers would clock out for the day, buy a newspaper, and sit on a trolley with a beer and a cigar. It took a lot of social engineering to get that worker to give up his relaxed drink and paper and submit, instead, to another hour of operating a heavy and dangerous machine – at his own expense.

It was such a tough sell, that a significant portion of the American way of life had to be retrofitted to the automobile in order for car ownership to make any sort of sense. The suburbs – the result of heavy automobile industry lobbying – can best be understood as the reconfiguration of the American landscape in such a fashion as to necessitate the use of private automobiles. GM famously bought out and closed rail and bus lines in order to force the issue.

Now that we live in an automobile culture, it’s only natural that our leading technologists seek transportation solutions that build on the automobile. After all, they are more expensive (and thus profitable) to manufacture than any sort of mass transit, and their costs are externalized to individual consumers, who see them as high-tech status symbols rather than financial obligations. For all their programming wizardry, they are nonetheless incapable of re-imagining transportation beyond a computer steering the wheel of a traditional motorcar.

If Google, Tesla, and the other tech behemoths looking to remake transportation had even a fraction of the chutzpah and innovative capacity of General Motors, Ford, and their automobile counterparts did in the early 20th century, they would be looking toward reprogramming transportation from the ground up. Imagine solar-powered light rail, public hovercrafts, or buses with pods that detached for the final blocks of traveI. Instead, they seem capable only of adopting the car industry’s PR strategy of casting humans as the enemy of technological progress.

But it is not we humans who are the jaywalkers in this case. It is the technology firms, whose outmoded vision of transportation will keep us trapped in a war with machines that we would do better to leave behind.