Steinberg: Google in the driver's seat

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A man wants to drive.

Sexist? Sure. But we live in a sexist society. Don’t blame me, I didn’t invent it. Scanning 25 years of marriage, I’d say I drive 95 percent of the time. Maybe more.

I like to drive. It feels strange to sit in the passenger seat watching the scenery go by. Powerless.

Which is why I’ve been closely watching the advent of Google’s self-driving cars.

They’re curiosities, now. Only four states allow them even to be road tested — California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida — though this month the tech giant is scooting vehicles around Austin, Texas, through a special arrangement with the government. They always have a human driver, in case something goes wrong.

But that will change. In a few years you’ll see one, then a few, then they’ll be everywhere.


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The artificial intelligence required — perceiving conditions in real time and reacting to them — is incredible, and it’s amazing that in the 2 million miles driven, there have only been a handful of minor accidents, and all of them the fault of other, human drivers; mostly rear-end collisions.

What interests me most is not the hardware or the software, but the wetware: how Americans will accept the the cars when they’re introduced. Right now Google is talking about 2020, which is right around the corner. We’ll welcome them grudgingly, I assume, given our lip service to freedom, the open road. Born to Run, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in their ’49 Hudson. “The road is life.” How will we ever sit passively and let a silicon chip do the driving?

The same way we gave up galloping horses for sputtering black Model T’s. Google is already navigating the psychological hurdles. I noticed in the official Google video of the first civilians to drive in the car, 10 are senior citizens, plus one middle-aged woman and one child. That’s it. Not one male seems between 12 and 60 — the one man who might be is blind — and while that might be coincidence, it also might be because we expect Daniel Craig to be working the gear shift of his Aston Martin Vanquish, not puffing out his cheeks with his hands on his knees and watching the world go by. Men drive.

For now. The change will happen, just because the cars are so much safer. Let’s say you spend $1,500 a year on car insurance, and the insurance on a self-driving car is $150. Suddenly you can save a big percentage of the car over its life expectancy. Most people will do it.

About 32,000 Americans died on the road last year in accidents that were caused by excessive speed, drunkenness, stupidity, texting, aggression, lack of care and general obliviousness. Not problems that will be associated with the Google self-driving car, though it will take us a while to see that clearly, to recover from what we can call Myth Hangover — the tendency to react to technology based, not on actual reality, but on stories.

Look at video cameras. For decades, the idea of being recorded in public places was filtered through George Orwell’s frightening novel “1984,” where a repressive government uses cameras to spy on citizens. That such cameras are overwhelmingly used to catch criminals and — for you fans of irony — hold excessive and racist police forces to account, has been very slow to register. We’re still scared of Big Brother.

One person run down by a Google car will cause more fuss than 1,000 killed by careless drivers. The tolerance for harm from technology is all out of scale. We’re still afraid the machines will get us. The Google self-driving car will play out as the latest installment of the John Henry saga. For those not up on your folk songs, John Henry is a steel driving man, pitted against a steam drill, vowing to “die with a hammer in his hand” before he let the steam drill beat him down.

And — spoiler alert! — die he does. The steam drill wins. The steam drill always wins. Paul Bunyan notwithstanding, loggers all use chainsaws instead of axes. The century when people drove their own cars will be a misty romantic memory, like the era when they rode horses and dipped candles. Not that there won’t be all sorts of blustery macho pushback from a culture that spawned the Fast & Furious movie franchise. The self-driving cars will be portrayed as weak and tepid, like clip-on ties and package tours. But we’ll accept them. Just watch.

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