You know a technology's beyond the infancy stage when politicians start paying attention to it. Driverless cars such as those being test-fielded by Waymo and other firms have upset a couple of Chicago aldermen to the extent that they have tried to enact a ban on them, saying they're too dangerous.
In an editorial as remarkable for its brevity as for its directness, the Chicago Sun-Times claims to take the side of the future in a piece titled “Driverless cars on the road to the future.”
According to the Sun-Times, the aldermen—Ed Burke and Anthony Beale—are worried about jobs. More perhaps than many other large US cities, Chicago is a working-class town, and drivers of many kinds—cabbies, truck drivers, delivery people, airport personnel—make up a significant number of voters. As such peoples' representatives, the aldermen elected by a particular district should take the concerns of their constituents seriously.
And if driverless cars threaten jobs, well, trying to do something about it is within the rights of a reasonable politician. There's a whiff of hypocrisy in claiming safety concerns about a matter that's really more about jobs, but no more than usual in today's political environment.
The editorial writers take the side of Illinois's Governor Bruce Rauner, who may sign a bill that would prohibit Chicago and other cities from enacting a ban on driverless cars. Conflicts between municipalities and state governments seem to be cropping up more frequently these days, typically with big cities taking more progressive positions and getting reined in by more conservative state legislatures and governors (Rauner is a Republican).
If driverless cars become a significant percentage of cars on the road, that will mark one of the biggest technological changes in transportation since the introduction of the automobile. We've been told that it will come with tremendous advantages compared to today's status quo: lower accident rates, less traffic congestion, and the freedom to use your commute time for things other than steering and using the brake pedal a lot.
And probably the most visible downside is what it will do to the job market for paid drivers. Every car on the road that used to need a driver but doesn't anymore represents a potential lower to middle-class job that becomes history.
The basis on which the editorial favours driverless cars is what historians call the Whig theory of history. This is the idea that the farther back you go, the worse things were, and that human history is an unbroken series of triumphs over ignorance and primitive ways that will eventually issue in Paradise on earth. After the horrors of the 20th Century (World War II, to name one), anyone who gives the matter a moment's thought will begin to see holes in the Whig theory. But it's been around so long that it has become a kind of cliché idea that some writers spout automatically.
The editorial writers claim that Chicago will become a “cow town” if it doesn't accept driverless cars, and they cite NASA's use of computers to get a man to the moon as an example of how computerized transportation is a good idea. Well, these are not so much arguments as they are assertions and bad analogies. The editorial winds up by saying no one banned Model Ts to protect jobs for blacksmiths, and “Old occupations may fade, but new ones come along.” The overall thrust of the article is basically to say, “Deal with it, and don't do something stupid that will make Chicago look like some kind of backward provincial hick town.”
Beneath this rather trivial discussion are a number of serious questions. What role should government play in the deployment of driverless cars? Should their regulation be at a local, regional, state, or national level, or some combination of the preceding? What, if anything, should be done to protect the jobs of people whose livelihood is threatened by the advent of driverless cars? How can we get from the level of automotive safety we have now to a better one by implementing driverless cars, without running into some emergent large-number problem that could cause a significant increase in serious accidents, injuries, and deaths?
Almost none of these questions were addressed by the editorial writers, but if they were operating under a house rule that prohibits editorials of much more than 300 words, well, there's not a lot you can say in 300 words.
By this point you may have the impression that I favour a ban on driverless cars. I don't favour a ban, and I don't favour a law against a ban. What I favour is a serious, in-depth discussion of the questions regarding driverless cars, and at least in the case of this editorial by one of the nation's major newspapers in a city of 2.7 million people, I don't see signs of that.
There are many signs that the elusive thing called unity is on the decline in this country. The degree to which citizens trust government to do the right thing has fallen precipitously compared to where it was several decades ago. And people don't trust a system that they don't understand or feel that they cannot influence when it allows or encourages things that can cause them harm.
Perhaps the two Chicago aldermen responded to their constituents in the wrong way, but at least they saw a genuine threat to jobs and went about trying to do something about it in response. Back when the average person could read things that required more than one step of logic to understand, there were typically a few local newspapers to read in any major city, two or three TV and radio networks, and maybe the newsreel at the movie house. That was it, as far as finding out what was going on in the world, and as a result, those who operated the media took care to use it with a reasonable degree of responsibility, and something like rational debate about great public matters of interest could be carried on.
But now, the media have fractured into a million tweets, Instagrams, and other detritus of electronic communications, most of which are too short to convey anything more than a burst of emotion. The Chicago paper's editorial is only 300 words long because they probably know from experience that people won't read 1000-word editorials anymore, if they read anything at all. And talking heads in video clips are pushing out text-based media of all kinds anyway.
I hope we as a nation, and the city of Chicago in particular, both reach a beneficial accommodation to the advent of driverless vehicles that will benefit most people while injuring as few as possible. But to get there in a way that makes people feel included, the discussion will have to be at a higher level than the Sun-Times has set for us.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.