Drive, Robot

The Road to Autonomous Cars

Fact: Self-driving cars are coming for us. Less clear is whether they’re coming to our rescue or to wreak havoc on our roadways. The answer may be decades away, but automotive expert and Jalopnik Senior Editor Jason Torchinsky is giving these rookie robots the benefit of the doubt. For now.

As car manufacturers and other companies race to develop autonomous vehicles, the need for a sherpa in the potential robot uprising is more pressing than ever. Torchinsky is that sherpa. In his book, Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving, he exhibits a ken so colorful and ahead of our time that I had to message him and ask, “How did you know all of the stuff in this book?”

Research, he said. “And a lot of the content is speculative and opinion that I just, you know, came up with,” he added.

The result is a well-considered thought experiment pondering our fates in a future society where the stakes are higher than, say, the arrival of the firstself-propelled vacuum cleaner. But first, we must learn how to think about these so-called AVs. “These are not Roombas, scuttling under couches, foraging for Dorito fragments,” Torchinsky writes. “These will be machines weighing close to two tons, fully capable of ending a human life.”

Autonomous vehicles won’t merely revolutionize cars the way mobiles changed telephones; to understand self-driving cars –“the first truly large deployment of large-scale, highly mobile robots into human society”–we must first scrap our entire conception of a car. That means no meditative joy rides, no chance to control hundreds of horsepower with one’s own body. But it also means outsourcing, to car-robots who can do it better than we can, troublesome tasks like jockeying for parking, running errands, and deciding where to eat dinner.

Even for readers with zero interest in cars, it’s a rabble-rousing joy to watch one of the finest thinkers on the subject grapple with what remains a largely theoretical discussion.  Along the way, Torchinsky sees potential consequences everywhere. What happens when a vehicle can be slowly hijacked via dancing flash mob, not to mention the constraints that will unduly burden Hollywood screenwriters who can no longer use the vagaries of human-directed driving as a dramatic plot device? Meanwhile, driving could become a lost art, “the way we regard people who make their own soap or who know how to butcher a rabbit.” Taken to extremes, we might even envision a world where car enthusiasts need to self-advocate NRA-style, fighting for the right to drive.

But don’t worry too much. However it all shakes out, Torchinsky promises, “It’s going to end up far, far weirder than we think.”

 

Jaclyn Trop

Jaclyn Trop is an award-winning journalist and automotive reporter, deciphering the world of sheet metal for the masses. She divides her time among Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York.She was awarded a Knight-Bagehot fellowship in business and economics reporting from Columbia University, where she also earned a master’s degree in journalism.

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