Kit Steinkellner
July 06, 2014 3:07 pm

I try not to be a luddite on the regular, which is an SAT-word-way of saying I try not to be freaked out about advances in technology. I think this is because when I was growing up The Jetsons was one of my favorite cartoons and I loved the idea of living in a world of flying cars, robot maids, and Judy Jetson dresses. So when my phone basically became a computer I was like “Yes, yes, YES, one step closer to becoming Kit Steinkellner-Jetson!”

I’m all about Google Glass and 3-D printers, so I should also be all about driver-less cars, an innovation that seems like it’s going to be one of the next big breakthroughs in technology. And I AM excited because like I just said, I really LIKE the future. But there’s also a lot standing between us and a future where everybody’s cars just drive themselves. Let’s discuss.

On the surface, a self-driving car seems like the most inspired of innovations. Think about a world where you’re no longer afraid of people pulling boneheaded moves in their cars. A world in which you don’t have to pull over to the side of the road to answer that call from your mom or check your texts. In a self-driving car, you can play on your phone all the live-long day. No one driving like maniacs and crashing into each other. They would, in a perfect world, eliminate car accidents. Great and more great.

And yet, as Slate reports, Google (Her Royal Highness, Queen of the Internet) and Detroit (Master and Commander of the Car World) are having tough times working together to make a self-driving car a reality. Google potentially foresees a world in which we all call driver-free taxis and listen to a constant stream of ads as we’re escorted to our destination. But that doesn’t exactly fit in with Ford’s business model of selling to individual car owners. “Instead, the automakers are looking to Google and other tech companies for incremental improvements to their existing products, like in-car technology, crash-avoidance systems, or automated parallel parking,” writes Slate’s Will Oremus.

Okay, it’s a start. But, but, but what about the no driving thing?

Cost is another issue standing in the way of a driver-free society. A self-driving car is going to be much more expensive than a human-driven car, and anyone who makes monthly car payments knows that human-driven cars are ALREADY a mother of a bill to pay.

But the biggest issue, to say the least, is safety.

A self-driven car doesn’t really make the road THAT much more safe unless ALL the other cars are also self-driven, and it is going to take a long-ass time to get everyone on that same technological page. Even if all cars become self-driven, this still doesn’t guarantee us complete safety on the road.

There’s also the chance that driver-free cars could “introduce entirely new safety hazards,” according to Oremus, “like system malfunctions or malicious hacks that lead to pileups of unprecedented proportions.” We’ve all dealt with spinning rainbows, tiny bomb icons, viruses, and terrifying “system shutdown” messages on our personal computers. Now imagine if those meltdowns happened in a moving vehicle?

What if a driver-less car has a system malfunction? What if a psychopath hacker breaks into the system and engineers a crash? How many problems do we solve with a self-driven car and how many ways do we open ourselves up to a slew of new problems? This dilemma, it should be noted, is the nutshell version of humanity’s relationship with technology. With each step forward, we make life both so much easier and so much harder for ourselves.

It’s for these reasons and others that Detroit’s car-makers seems reluctant to get on the self-driven bandwagon. Google’s probably going to have to find another partner with whom they can Jetson-up the world. Whoever ends up being Google’s lab partner on the Best Science Fair Project Ever is going to have to help them figure out some answers to the above problems, or we are NEVER going to get to hang out and play on our cell phones while our cars drive us around and then everybody loses.

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