Watson: Drive it yourself

Oct 9, 2017 by

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It’s time to talk about self-driving cars. Many technological innovations — Amazon Echo, an iPhone without headphone port, the social media app Sarahah — catch us by surprise. But self-driving cars have been under development since the 1980s and shot into public view in 2009 when Google announced its hope to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020.

Hillary Watson


Conversations about automated vehicles are so focused on the technology itself that they do not ask how that technology will affect our lives. Several concerns should be part of our conversation:

* Employment impact. Who stands to benefit the most from automated vehicles? Companies based in transportation, whose profits would rise if they could eliminate employees. Uber envisions a fully automated rideshare program. But Uber is already a gig-economy refuge for those who can’t find full-time, living-wage employment in the traditional economy. (In my ride­share experience, drivers are mostly immigrants, retirees who can’t afford full-time retirement and underemployed millennials.) Automated vehicles put people out of work.

* Consumption impact. Promoters  of automated vehicles advertise increased flexibility. That’s coded language for “spending the same amount of time in the car but consuming more.” Tech companies hope we’ll spend that car time scrolling Facebook, watching YouTube or buying stuff from Amazon. To the corporations at the center of our consumption-based culture, the main problem with the time we spend driv-ing is that we can’t produce revenue then.

Why settle for radio ads when we could use our car time to generate revenue for Facebook or Google by viewing their ads? Google, a powerhouse in automation, is looking to increase the usage time of its other products — by keeping us in cars with our hands free.

* Family impact. Who will decide the rules for self-driving cars? Will parents be tempted to pack their 5- and 6-year-olds into vehicles to travel to school alone? Families may spend the same amount of time in cars, but not together. Developmental psychologists frequently observe that car time can be some of the best time to connect with your child. Because the child does not have to make eye contact and the conversation has a fixed length, children — especially teens — can be more forthcoming in car conversation. Even when families share car time, if the parent uses the nonoperation time to catch up on work emails, it’s not really family time.

* Climate impact. Automated vehicles allow us to disengage from the reality of the car. When we are not watching the gas level drop as we drive, will we do more driving? When we don’t have to worry about driving sober, will people drink more? Will they rely less on public transit to get home from parties? These factors make it more likely that the ecological footprints of cars will be higher and that self-driving cars will accelerate the destruction of the planet.

The main objection to self-driving cars is the risk that comes with “fast knowledge”: humans’ ability to develop technology faster than we can evaluate its impact. An Anabaptist inclination toward skepticism of innovation for the sake of innovation will serve us well.

A 2017 survey showed three-quarters of Americans are wary of riding in a fully self-driving vehicle. Older generations are more skeptical than younger ones. Christians should never blindly embrace cultural shifts. We need to discuss automated cars in our churches. We need to prepare for the impact of self-driving cars before they arrive.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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