The future could go many different ways. In the previous article in this series, we talked about some of the promises that drone technology has for our future. However, there is of course more to this story. There are those who are curious about the unforeseen effects autonomous vehicles may have on our society – similar to how the shift from horses to the internal combustion engine was the impetuous for many changes in our societies, both positive and negative, predicted and unforeseen, since its introduction to the masses 107 years ago.
There are roughly four major concerns that I’ve heard so far: the first is that by making long-distance commutes so convenient (get in car, sleep for three hours, wake up at the office!), that we could see even more urban sprawl, as people get more comfortable with moving further away.
The second is that better traffic flow could mean more demand, clogging existing infrastructure, and the third is that if cars were allowed to travel at higher speeds due to user confidence in their automated functions, then the safety and consideration of pedestrians and cyclists would suffer in a city setting.
Lastly, there is the concern that the automation of vehicles will put many human drivers out of work.
Of the four points that I’ve raised, it is my opinion that the fourth is the most concerning, because it extends into every facet of our society and thus far we have been unable to adequately address it at any meaningful level.
The first three points are good to note, but they ignore other societal trends or realities that have been going on for awhile now. To address the question of the long-distance commute, it first assumes that people will still be choosing to live in the suburbs like they have for awhile now. The problem is, millenials just aren’t buying cars like the last three or four generations. If you want to read more, check out this article from Fast Company - ”Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why“.
Long distance commutes are going out of style, regardless of who you are. However, those born during or after the 80s are opting to live in cities over suburbs, and many of them are choosing public transit over personal cars. So people in general are opting to live closer to work, and this usually means living in a city.
I think this be because, if given the choice, most people would choose not to spend two hours of their time every day driving back and forth to work.
Besides, if you could commute three hours each way because you had an autonomous vehicle…would you really want to? You would be spending the majority of your time in your car. It doesn’t make that much sense, unless the weekends where you live are absolutely dope.
I do not see better traffic flow clogging existing infrastructure – though the concern is that if these systems turn out to be awesome, then it would induce demand that the system can’t handle. I don’t think we’ll see this problem unless we’re in a city that already has a gridlock issue. Even then, once you’re in a city, most people are already used to taking public transit.
The concern about the “always on” or super-fast traffic speeds either eliminating pedestrian crossings (because the traffic never stops), or making it too dangerous to cross the road, is a bit far-fetched. At that point we are literally making it impossible for humans to move around their own cities without a car, and I don’t think there’s any demand for that, let alone how plausible it is.
The Jobs Issue
We are entering a time when mechanized labor isn’t just augmenting or replacing our hands – they’re thinking for us now, too. The problem is that we are living in a 21st century world with medieval ideas of government, Enlightenment-era social constructs, a Victorian-era educational system, and 20th century business practices. To fully tackle the issue of jobs and automation, we are going to have to accept that people might have to not work all the time.
It’s ironic, really, that we are in this situation. For all of human existence, we have built machines to relieve us of manual labor. The Egyptians did it, when they used giant wooden logs to roll massive chunks of marble across the desert to build the pyramids. The Chinese did it when they developed the sail-powered wheelbarrow (which was actually great at the time, by the way) – and we do it when we write software that runs machines that allow us to communicate across the planet, travel millions of miles into space, and cars that drive themselves so we don’t die if we fall asleep at the wheel.
Now that we are at the forefront of an era where machines will actually begin making it so easy for us to live that we don’t actually have to do any work, we scramble for another slot to stick the displaced person into. The problem is that the last 100 years of our society have been built towards specializing people so that they are able to perform certain repetitive tasks over and over again: much like a machine themselves, in fact.
So when these people have worked as a driver for 20 years, it’s possible that that’s all they really know what to do to make money. The fact is that automation will displace people, and some of those people will not be able to find work again. So we need to be more explorative and experimental as a society, as governments and institutions, so that we can find other ways of helping these people reach their full potential after a robot takes “their job”.
The future is coming. Where will you be when it gets here?
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