S ome­one grab the steer­ing wheel

Au­to­mated au­tos might make free­dom of the open road a thing of the past

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Jonah Gold­berg

There’s a great scene in the movie “The Right Stuff” where the orig­i­nal Mer­cury as­tro­nauts are check­ing out the cap­sule for their first trips to space. They’re hor­ri­fied to dis­cover that the Ger­man sci­en­tists in charge of the pro­gram see the as­tro­nauts as noth­ing more than liv­ing props.

There is no win­dow, the sci­en­tists ex­plain. There’s no emer­gency hatch or even con­trols for the as­tro­nauts to use. It’s all au­to­mated. “We want a win­dow,” the as­tro­nauts de­mand.

The white-frocked ex­perts re­luc­tantly agree to give the as­tro­nauts a win­dow and pi­lot­ing con­trols be­cause they know the Amer­i­can peo­ple would hate to see the na­tion’s great­est pi­lots treated like lab mon­keys with no say in their fate.

I can’t help but won­der whether in 20 years the Amer­i­can peo­ple will have the right stuff to de­mand a steer­ing wheel in their cars.

If you haven’t heard, we — and by “we” I mean the guys in the lab coats in Detroit and Sil­i­con Val­ley — are very close to hav­ing a com­pletely au­to­mated au­to­mo­bile ready for the mar­ket. Driver­less cars have been tested in nu­mer­ous con­di­tions. Audi even sent a four-wheeled ro­bot to the top of Pikes Peak. Volvo has one that can let the “driver” read the news­pa­per on the way to work, even in busy city traf­fic. Af­ter a suc­cess­ful lob­by­ing cam­paign by Google (which has logged thou­sands of hours with its self-driv­ing cars) Ne­vada re­cently passed a sweep­ing robot­friendly law.

Ac­cord­ing to press re­ports, ro­bots al­ready are far safer than hu­man driv­ers. Re­ac­tion times are bet­ter. Radar and GPS tech­nol­ogy gives the ro­bots a 360de­gree view. Ro­bots don’t get drowsy, and they don’t sud­denly cross the yel­low line when they spill a hot latte in their laps.

But let’s as­sume the tech­nol­ogy will — as tech­nol­ogy in­vari­ably does — get much, much bet­ter and Amer­i­cans will be able to sit back and play with their ipad 7s as their cars take them to work. What next?

Some con­se­quences are pretty ob­vi­ous and de­sir­able. Traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties will plum­met. In 2010, there were 32,885 U.S. traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties — the low­est to­tal since 1949, but still dis­turbingly high. Com­put­er­ized driv­ing could rem­edy that.

Au­to­mated cars also could be an enor­mous boon to the phys­i­cally dis­abled. In­sur­ance rates would crater, traf­fic would be more ef­fi­cient, speed­ing tick­ets could be­come a thing of the past (pos­si­bly bankrupt­ing high­way­man fief­doms like Washington, D.C.). And — hooray — we all could have mar­ti­nis be­fore din­ner again be­cause an em­bry­onic ver­sion of Skynet would be our des­ig­nated driver.

So far, so good. On the other hand, au­to­mated au­tos un­doubt­edly would put count­less Amer­i­cans who make a liv­ing driv­ing cars, buses and trucks out of work, at least in the short run. I’m no Lud­dite. Cap­i­tal­ism is sup­posed to de­stroy un­pro­duc­tive jobs to make room for pro­duc­tive ones. Still, in the short term, the tur­moil could be bru­tal, eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally.

But let’s leave pro­fes­sional driv­ers out of it. Be­sides, truck and bus driv­ers do more than sim­ply drive, and they might keep their in­creas­ingly re­de­fined jobs for a good while longer. What I find most dis­turb­ing to con­tem­plate is what this would mean for Amer­i­can lib­erty. Health and safety — par­tic­u­larly for “the chil­dren” — have be­come all-pur­pose writs for so­cial med­dling. The list of dan­ger­ous sub­stances and ac­tiv­i­ties from which we need to be pro­tected grows by the day. With the help of a me­dia es­tab­lish­ment that turns anec­dotes into epi­demics in a heart­beat, the state cease­lessly em­pow­ers it­self to con­strain our free­doms for what the ex­perts tell us is our own good.

Let’s be fair: The ex­perts aren’t al­ways wrong, and even when they’re wrong, their ar­gu­ments aren’t nec­es­sar­ily un­rea­son­able given their as­sump­tions. But if you fol­low the logic of manda­tory seat belts and mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets, red-light cam­eras and an­ti­tex­ting laws to their nat­u­ral con­clu­sion, it’s easy to imag­ine that some bu­reau­crats will want to co-au­thor your car’s soft­ware.

Then what? Will you ever be al­lowed to go over the speed limit again? Po­lice al­ready are drool­ing to see our GPS data. Will that be­come au­to­matic, too? Will the cops have the power to tell your car to stop whether you want it to or not? Will au­thor­i­ties be able to tell your car to take a de­tour to al­le­vi­ate traf­fic? Make it turn around when it gets too close to cer­tain off-limit ar­eas? I don’t know, and nei­ther does any­one else. But I would like to imag­ine that when these de­bates come — and they will — a suf­fi­cient num­ber of Amer­i­cans will have enough of the right stuff to say, “We want a steer­ing wheel.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY JOHN CAMEJO

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