I volunteered to attend The Future of the Automobile Conference, sponsored by the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, so that I could report to NMA on what technological and political schemes are being cooked up for drivers.
I walked in bright and early to avoid Los Angeles’s notorious traffic congestion. This was my first time at the museum. Naturally, I photographed some of the cars there. One, a Porsche 917 called “Unfair Advantage,” had a 1500 horsepower engine that would have been at home in a World War II fighter. (I won’t get a chance to drive the car, but I once had a chance to fly in a P-51C Mustang with a similar V-12 engine – you can really feel the power!).
During the first panel, Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Museum, stated that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are “not taboo, but welcomed here” – a painful statement for those of us who like to drive our own cars.
Ridesharing was also considered a big deal. Many of the speakers at the different panels ̶ led by representatives of Tesla, Intel, and McKinsey & Company (a global management consultant) and others from the automotive, technology, and infrastructure industries ̶ stated that AVs and ridesharing were here to stay; most believed (or hoped) that individual vehicle ownership would go away.
There was some disagreement as to whether AVs are ready to be deployed right now. One AV advocate stated that we should think of AVs the way people thought of aircraft in the early 20th century – some problems to fix, but lots of potential. Thankfully, one panelist warned that cybersecurity for vehicles (fully autonomous or not) needs to be addressed.
Human drivers, for all their flaws and recklessness, are not computers. They are decentralized. One cannot upload a virus into billions of humans and cause them to lose control. However, that is possible with cars connected to each other and to the Internet of Things, where security is ignored in the name of convenience and connection.
There was much talk about safety and vehicle congestion during the various panels. Fair enough; these are real issues. However, I believe that these issues are being used as Trojan horses for more control and more surveillance. We Americans have been so used to owning our cars and driving them whenever and wherever we please that we tend to forget how empowering that is. There are those who want to take that away – governments to control, and the big tech companies for profit. James Rickards (who was not at the conference) said it best in The Road to Ruin:
Next on the horizon is the driverless car championed by Google, Tesla, and Volkswagen, among others. The driverless car is not driverless; it’s just that the driver is not human. The real driver is a network of algorithms, GPS location devices, and robotics. Driverless systems are subject to government supervision. In the future, governments will deliver political opponents to detention centers by commandeering the software, locking the car doors, and conveying the car’s occupant into custody.
None of the speakers at the conference came out point-blank for Rickards’ vision, but I think that many of them would be delighted at the prospect. One panelist spoke eagerly about how his company’s artificial intelligence (he called it “intuitive intelligence”) program would be able to monitor the emotional state of the driver and be able to ask questions or even pull over. Naturally, all of this data would be sent to insurance companies. He openly admitted to wanting to influence human behavior behind the wheel. So now our cars are supposed to be our psychologists, as well as spies for government and insurance companies? No thanks!!
When I asked this panelist about privacy, he said that we’re already being monitored, so we should get used to it, and that collective safety is more important than privacy. (Again, the safety over freedom shtick. When did our can-do country become a nation of safety-obsessed weenies?) True, anything connected to the modern telecom grid is a potential spy, but that doesn’t mean I want to be forced to drive a car with an AI program pretending to be my shrink.
What about those of us who like driving our own cars? What about those of us who like being in control and who don’t want to be spied upon? Will we have a place in this Brave New World being dreamed up by money-hungry techno-geeks and politicians dreaming of utopia?
I spoke with John Rossant, one of the panelists and founder of New Cities and the yearly LA CoMotion conference in Los Angeles. He believes that there will be a mixed future of autonomous vehicles, ridesharing, and private ownership of vehicles. He believes that no politician except in dense cities will propose an outright ban on vehicle ownership. He thinks that the private vehicle lobby might become as powerful as the Second Amendment lobby. That means the National Motorists’ Association needs to become as powerful as the National Rifle Association – it’s the only way to keep techno-geeks and politicians from prying our steering wheels from our cold, dead fingers!!
One thing was missing from most speakers at the conference: humility. Human society isn’t perfect; neither is technology. Central planning doesn’t work very well; people, especially in the United States, are too interested in doing their own thing. If that means driving their own dumb cars, so be it.
There will be no such thing as zero accidents. When you try to create zero risk, as these vehicle tech companies and chi-chi city planners are trying to do, you end up with zero privacy and zero freedom – and still some risk.
If some people want to choose ridesharing, or choose to own or lease AVs, that’s fine. However, neither I nor other NMA members want to be forced into giving up our cars in the name of “safety” or “reducing congestion.” It would sure be a shame if the Petersen Automotive Museum and similar museums become the only places we can see vehicles that need a human driver.
Give us risk, give us privacy, and give us the freedom to drive our dumb cars!!
NMA California Member Michael Jabbra loves to drive and can be reached at his website: http://www.michaeljabbra.com/.
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