The American romance with the automobile is the stuff of legend. Seldom has a product of mechanical engineering been as obsessed over by pop culture as the car. Just peek inside that 100-year almanac of American desires, hopes and fears known as The Movies and you’ll see the wide range of protagonists it plays: friend (“The Love Bug,”) enemy (“Christine”), accomplice (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Drive)”, freedom fighter (“Mad Max”), outlaw, (“Smokey and the Bandit”), sarcophagus (“The Godfather), time machine (“Back to The Future”) and sexual aid (every James Bond film).
The movie "La La Land," which leads this Sunday’s Academy Awards show with an eye-popping 14 nominations (tied with “Titanic” and “All About Eve” for the most in history), opens with an astonishing scene in which hundreds of gridlocked cars become the springboard for a stunning dance number. “Pearl,” nominated for best animated short film (and shot in 360° video) takes place entirely inside a family car. My favorite bad guys of the year, Ben Foster and Chris Pine, spend most of their time during “Hell or High Water” driving, switching, worrying about, or burying cars.
And the Heptapods—who could forget that chatty bunch? The Heptapods in "Arrival" make their first appearance on earth driving what, to a Heptapod’s eye, looks more or less like a Winnebago, but to a human eye, quite unfortunately, looks exactly like a Giant Alien Death Ship. Twelve of them, actually.
Language may be universal, but car design idioms, apparently, are not.
At any rate, the car has become so overburdened with meaning in American culture that, as a symbol, it is often in conflict with itself: turbo-charged conveyance of life-defining road trips on the one hand, snail-paced stagecoach in the soul-crushing caravan of the daily commute on the other.
Against this rich cultural backdrop, we have the jarring image of the autonomous vehicle (AV). I say jarring because I like to drive, I like technology, and I know (intellectually) that AVs will become an everyday reality. Just look at the numbers. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.25 million people die from car-related accidents per year, of which more than 90% are attributable to human error.
However, statistics alone don’t convince people Just take cigarettes and sugar soda as examples (both can kill you, but people still consume them). And despite the obvious health benefits of not dying in a car accident, more than half of adults say they would never buy an autonomous vehicle.
The problem is that we’re selling it all wrong. Let’s start with language, the sterile laboratory speak of “autonomous vehicle.” First of all, a fully “autonomous” anything is scary, especially if it weighs 4,000 pounds, is made of steel, and goes really fast. We’ve seen that before, and it was the homicidal Johnny Cab from “Total Recall.”
Let’s just call AVs what they really are: cars with auto-pilot. After all, every new commercial jet sold in this country comes standard with auto-pilot, and the U.S. is one of the safest places to fly in the world.
So a car with auto-pilot should be a good thing. Many cars are already partway there anyway, with lane assist and park assist and don’t-back-over-the-dog assist. And all Teslas built since November have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability “at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” (obviously Elon Musk hasn’t seen Ryan Gosling drive).
There are many reasons to be optimistic about this particular future. Here are some of the more awesome ones:
Driverless cars will intersect with electric cars, and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft will continue to expand their services everywhere, greatly reducing the need for most people to own a car. The industry will move from a product to a service model, with the added benefit that people won’t be stuck with the same old model for five years. Drive an SUV today, a convertible tomorrow. Cadillac is already experimenting with this through its new subscription service, Book, announced last month.
They will be reshaped around people, and they will be smog-free. Urban planners like Robert Moses, working in the 1950s and 1960s, designed cities for cars, not for people. Highways were built to get people through, around, and out of the city, to somewhere presumably more bucolic. Thus Manhattan is jammed with streets, avenues, highways, and parking lots – all full of cars. With fewer people owning cars (and needing to park them), much of this land can be reclaimed for pedestrians.
Goodbye, billboards. With drivers freed from the tyranny of staring ahead all the time (when they’re not texting or watching a Harry Potter movie), the interior of the car will matter much more. There will be more focus on group conversations, entertainment, and devices. Billboards will become irrelevant. In-car advertising will become a thing, while the pedestrian zones of cities will see an increase in high-impact OOH meant to be viewed at walking, not driving, pace.
We will have a new sport of mixed contestants. Some will be human, and others will be AVs. The advertising opportunities will change: human cars will have the usual big brand logos, and the AVs will have the logos of those technology companies responsible for this minor miracle.
Is it possible that motorized sports, with its new species of AV-enabled competitors, will become even more exciting? Or will the racetrack become just another highway jammed with broken heroes on their—here it comes—last-chance power drive, seeking in vain to vanquish their non-human competition?
Might the desperate futility of such an endeavor even become part of its attraction?
It has happened before. For centuries, humans have happily competed in games of extraordinary complexity like Chess and Go, and to attain grandmaster status in either one is generally recognized as a badge of the highest achievement. But machines have now beaten us at both.
When it comes to avoiding death and injury, the stakes are obviously much higher in stock car racing than in chess or Go. But the complexity, arguably, is not—especially once you remove emotion and fatigue from the equation. If an AV can drive better than a human at speeds up to 70mph, there is no technical reason why an AV can’t equally outperform a human at higher speeds.
So who is our Garry Kasparov of NASCAR, our Lee Sedol? Is it one of our current greats?
Or is this new driver still just a child living on (say) the family farm, blessed with preternaturally fast reflexes and an inappropriate desire to haul ass? At what point will his parents, after suffering a traumatic setback of some kind, finally recognize their child’s talent and get him properly trained for the big day by Dale Earnhardt, Jr?
There’s a movie in there somewhere.