“We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West. The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.” —Toby Walsh
“Do you know about the Human Driving Association? We’re a nonpartisan, apolitical lobbying group. We want to protect the right to own a car and to have a steering wheel.” —Alex Roy
Over the last few years, The New Yorker Magzine has published several insightful stories that provide a unique perspective on the complex future of autonomous vehicles. Recent New Yorker articles on driverless cars touch on ethics, trust, and Detroit’s urgent embrace of autonomous vehicles. They have also written extensively about Waymo and Uber. The most recent New Yorker story from April 30th is thought-proking and worth a read. It focuses on three things that any modern car enthusiast should know about—Radwood, The Human Driving Association, and Alex Roy. (All images courtesy of The New Yorker Magazine)
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THE FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO DRIVE
Reposted from The New Yorker, April 30th, 2019.
Story by M.R. O’Connor
In March, 2018, General Motors announced that it would invest a hundred million dollars in a new car called the Cruise AV. On the outside, the Cruise resembles an ordinary car. But, on the inside, it’s what the automotive industry calls a “level five” autonomous vehicle: a car with no steering wheel, gas pedal, or human-operated brake. Ford, too, plans to release a car without a steering wheel, by 2021; Navya, a French company, already produces level-five shuttles and taxis, and has partnered with cities such as Luxembourg City and Abu Dhabi. Silicon Valley futurists and many Detroit executives see such cars as the inevitable future of driving. By taking people out of the driver’s seat, they aim to make traveling by automobile as safe as flying in a plane.
Last fall, the Philadelphia Navy Yard hosted Radwood, a car meet-up with a very different conception of the automotive future. The only cars allowed at Radwood are ones manufactured between 1980 and 2000. When I visited, early one morning, people had gathered around a red 1991 Volvo GL. The car was well worn from thousands of school drop-offs and soccer practices; its cracked leather driver’s seat still showed the gentle indent of its owner’s behind. Its most advanced technological feature was cruise control. Still, its hood was proudly propped open, in normcore glory. Speakers blasted the Talking Heads’ 1980 hit “Once in a Lifetime,” while, nearby, a man dressed in a nineties-style pink-and-blue windbreaker jumpsuit posed for a photo before a Volkswagen Westfalia. Other attendees cooed over a faded teal-green Ford Taurus, a twenty-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer, and a rusting Volkswagen Rabbit—the mundane cars that, in the previous millennium, had roamed the automotive landscape.
Radwood was first held in San Francisco, in 2017; this year, it’s being held in around a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and Sodegaura, Japan. With their molded-plastic exteriors, aerodynamic spoilers, and pop-up headlights, many of the cars at Radwood share an aesthetic. What really unites them, however, is their status as relics. They hail from an era when engine controls weren’t fully computerized, and when cars could be fixed using hand tools. They represent a relationship to technology that has now vanished—one that privileges user involvement over convenience. “The majority of people who are fans of cars in this era want to be able to work on their own cars,” Bradley Brownell, one of Radwood’s co-founders, told me. “When you buy cars like these, you’re getting something rawer. Half of these don’t even have A.B.S.”
In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” from 2009, the political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that manual competence—our ability to repair the machines and devices in our lives—is a kind of ethical practice. Knowing how to fix things ourselves creates opportunities for meaningful work and individual agency; it allows us to grasp more deeply the built world around us. The mass-market economy, Crawford writes, produces devices that are practically impenetrable. If we try to repair our microwaves or printers, we’ll quickly be discouraged by their complexity; many cars produced today lack even dipsticks to check their oil levels. Driving the Tesla Model 3 has been compared to using a giant iPhone: instead of controlling the car directly, one seems to pilot it by means of a user interface.
Many people, Crawford thinks, yearn to revolt against “the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines.” Some of them attend Radwood. One twenty-six-year-old salesperson for a popular automotive Web site told me that he didn’t “want to be a test dummy for Tesla.” He owns a few pre-2000 cars and sees them as valuable investments. At Radwood, he said, he had become a member of the Human Driving Association, an organization aiming to protect people’s freedom of movement and right to drive their own cars. The H.D.A. imagines a future in which, for safety reasons, human driving is made illegal. To prevent this scenario from coming to pass, it advocates laws requiring carmakers to include a steering wheel in every vehicle; it also argues that every future car should be fully drivable under hundred-per-cent human control. For members of the H.D.A., events like Radwood aren’t purely nostalgic. They’re an expression of resistance. They believe that, in a world of level-five autonomous vehicles, driving a 1991 Volvo GL could become a radical political act. It might make you an outlaw.
The Human Driving Association’s headquarters consists of a couple of desks in a shared loft in Manhattan’s Cooper Square. The organization’s founder, Alex Roy, is a forty-seven-year-old rally-car driver and entrepreneur with a sleek, shaved head, a strong jaw, and a mischievous way of raising his eyebrows. He is famous in racing circles for setting a record in the transcontinental Cannonball Run—a race immortalized by the 1981 movie of the same name, starring Burt Reynolds. The Run is still unofficial, unsanctioned, and hugely illegal; it requires contenders to employ radar jammers, escape police chases, and break speed limits. In 2006, driving a BMW M5, Roy crossed the United States in thirty-one hours and four minutes, at an average speed of ninety miles per hour. He honed his concentration by driving endless laps in the video game Forza Motorsport and planned his route meticulously, hitting only five red lights and two toll booths over twenty-eight hundred miles.
Unsurprisingly, Roy has deep misgivings about the prospect of a fully autonomous, steering-wheel-less future. In his view, cars that lack steering wheels or are inoperable when disconnected from communications networks subvert human agency, self-sufficiency, and freedom. He likes to say that human autonomy—as opposed to vehicular autonomy—is the only kind that matters. “Autonomy = freedom,” he has written. “The freedom to go anywhere, or nowhere at all, or to speed across the country for no damn good reason.”
Roy started the Human Driving Association in early 2018, after reading a manifesto written by Robin Chase, the entrepreneur and former C.E.O. of Zipcar. In the manifesto, “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities,” Chase outlines a now familiar vision for autonomous driving, in which dense urban areas are filled with autonomous vehicles that operate in fleets, so as to reduce congestion and emissions. “I just couldn’t understand why it had to be so binary—individual ownership or shared fleets,” Roy said. In ninety frenzied minutes, he wrote his own manifesto, which he published as an article for The Drive, an online car magazine. It begins with a picture of a steering wheel and the words “From my cold, dead hands,” and culminates by calling for a constitutional amendment creating a right to drive.
Roy’s sensational rhetoric belies the depth of his critiques. He charges journalists with accepting too quickly the autonomous-vehicle industry’s narrative of inevitability without interrogating its technological claims. Much has been written about the five levels of vehicular autonomy specified by the Society of Automotive Engineers. (They ascend from level zero, where most cars are today, to the fully autonomous level five.) And yet, Roy maintains, there is still broad disagreement about where various real-world systems, from Tesla’s autopilot to Cadillac’s Super Cruise, belong in that taxonomy. In his view, this has led to a widespread sense that autonomous-driving technology is further advanced than it really is—a dangerous misperception, because people may overestimate the self-driving capabilities of the cars they buy. Given today’s technology, he writes, “The bar for use of the words ‘autonomous’ and ‘self-driving’ needs to be set so high that no media outlet can exploit them for traffic, no car company can use them in a press release to boost their stock price, and most importantly, no driver thinks they can take their hands off the wheel, even temporarily.”
Roy also questions the widespread assertion that driverless cars are safer than those driven by humans. Car companies, he argues, have chosen the metrics by which autonomous safety is judged; some focus on the number of miles driven, others on how often hands-free systems must be disengaged, and so on. This data is selectively published; there is no common standard. He argues that no autonomous car has been proved to be safer than one with a human being behind the wheel.
Finally, Roy points out that many of the problems autonomous cars promise to solve also have simpler, non-technological solutions. (This is true, of course, only if one assumes that driving isn’t a problem in itself.) To reduce traffic, governments can invest in mass-transit and road infrastructure. To diminish pollution, they can build bike lanes and encourage the adoption of electric cars. In Roy’s opinion, the best way to make driving safer has nothing to do with technology: it’s to raise licensing standards and improve driver education. Over lunch—a Niçoise salad—Roy argued that our fixation on driverless cars flows from our civic laziness. “It’s easier to imagine that technology can solve a problem that education or regulation could also fix,” he said. In place of the driverless utopia that technologists often picture, he asked me to consider another possibility: a congested urban hellscape in which autonomous vehicles are subsidized by companies that pump them full of advertising; in exchange for free rides, companies might require you to pass by particular stores or watch commercial messages displayed on the vehicles’ windows. (A future very much like this was recently imagined by T. Coraghessan Boyle, in his short story “Asleep at the Wheel.”) In such a world, Roy said, “The joy of the ride is taken away.”
Waymo, the driverless-car firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been test-driving its autonomous vehicles in Arizona since 2016. People there have attacked the cars in a variety of ways: throwing rocks; cutting tires; aiming guns; trying to run them off the road. Like the Luddites of the early nineteenth century, who brandished hatchets, hammers, and muskets and smashed the mechanical looms that were taking their jobs, these attackers seem to be expressing a visceral feeling of contempt for the promised disruptions of autonomous technology. Their distrust and resentment may be widespread. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans say that they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle; seventy-two per cent of the skeptics said that they don’t trust the cars, have safety concerns, or simply worry about giving up control. And yet the same study shows that two-thirds of Americans expect cars to become driverless in the next fifty years. Who wouldn’t feel resentment, contemplating a future they don’t want but is going to happen anyway?
Meredith Broussard, a former software developer who is now a professor of data journalism at New York University, explores resistance to autonomous vehicles in her recent book, “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.” “The people who are protesting and messing with these vehicles—I wish we would listen to them,” she told me. Broussard argues that the autonomous-vehicle industry has short-circuited the debate around the issue of safety. “The logical fallacy is where they say, ‘If you don’t adopt our technology, people will die,’ ” she explained. “It shuts down the conversation. No one wants someone to die.”
Safety has long been a central argument for the adoption of driverless cars. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ninety-four percent of serious crashes are due to human error, and some thirty-five thousand Americans die in traffic-related accidents each year. Autonomous-vehicle makers claim that, by seeing more and responding faster than human drivers can, their cars will save thousands of lives. According to this logic, not adopting autonomous-vehicle technology would be irresponsible—even unethical. “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous,” Elon Musk said, at a technology conference, in 2015. (“To be clear, Tesla is strongly in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars and always will be,” he elaborated later, on Twitter. “Hopefully, that is obvious. However, when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter. Hopefully not.”)
Perhaps it was inevitable that a nascent right-to-drive movement would spring up in America, whereas fervent gun-rights advocates and anti-vaccinators have shown—we seem intent on preserving freedom of choice even if it kills us. “People outside the United States look at it with bewilderment,” Toby Walsh, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, told me. In his book “Machines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence,” from 2018, Walsh predicts that, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will be so safe that we won’t be allowed to drive our own cars. Unlike Roy, he believes that we will neither notice nor care. In Walsh’s view, a constitutional amendment protecting the right to drive would be as misguided as the Second Amendment. “We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West,” he went on. “The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.”
Broussard has a term for the insistence that computers can do everything better than humans can: technochauvinism. “Most of the autonomous-vehicle manufacturers are technochauvinists,” she said. “The big spike in distracted-driving traffic accidents and fatalities in the past several years has been from people texting and driving. The argument that the cars themselves are the problem is not really looking at the correct issue. We would be substantially safer if we put cell-phone-jamming devices in cars. And we already have that technology.” Like Roy, she strongly disputes both the imminence and the safety of driverless technology. “There comes a point at which you have to divorce fantasy from reality, and the reality is that autonomous vehicles are two-ton killing machines. They do not work as well as advocates would have you believe.”
Rather than create a constitutional amendment, Broussard argues that drivers should resist laws that would take away their existing rights. Although steering wheels are legally mandatory, the self-drive Act, which passed the House in 2017, would allow autonomous-vehicle companies to request exemptions from tens of thousands of other regulations. (The Act died in the Senate, but driverless-car companies are urging Congress to take it up again this year.) According to Broussard, the best way to protect the right to drive may be simply to defeat laws that would legalize autonomous vehicles. “We can challenge the notion that autonomous vehicles are inevitable,” she said. “They are not even legal right now.”
Today, the Human Driving Association has around ten thousand members. In addition to a constitutional amendment, it advocates for the adoption of automotive technologies that improve safety without limiting freedom. When Roy imagines the perfect future car, he pictures a vehicle with a self-driving option for cities and highways; an augmented system for mitigating crashes; and an “off-road” mode that allows for total human control. The perfect car would also have a privacy button that could disconnect it from wireless networks. In January, Roy took a job as a director of special operations at the autonomous-vehicle company Argo AI, even as he continues to grow the H.D.A. On the phone from South by Southwest, where he was recording a live episode of his podcast, “Autonocast” (“A zero-BS podcast about the future of transportation”), he defended his new job by explaining that Argo AI’s leaders were “realists.” “They aren’t utopians,” he said. “The company is full of people who love driving. They see automation as extending freedom, not taking it away.”
In their selective interest in new technologies, members of the human-driver movement may not resemble the Luddites so much as the Amish. Although members of Amish communities—there are around five hundred, in thirty-one states—renounce car ownership altogether, their approach to technology can be nuanced. “The public perception is that there’s no engagement with technology,” the religion scholar Steven Nolt told me. In fact, some Amish communities employ technology selectively, embracing innovations—such as tractors and even online voice calling—that they’ve decided won’t undermine their communitarian values. For the Amish to adopt a technology, Nolt said, “its orientation shouldn’t be towards autonomy or individualism or maximizing yourself.” The problem with cars isn’t that they are technological, as such, but that they encourage people to travel far from home, going in different directions and leading separate lives.
The human-driver movement, of course, rejects autonomous vehicles for exactly the opposite reason: to preserve the freedom of the individual. And yet the underlying principle—taking or leaving technology according to one’s values—may be Amish at heart. The philosopher Albert Borgmann—the author of “Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life,” among other books—told me that he sees the adoption of self-driving cars as an endpoint in an ongoing process of technological colonization. When this colonization is complete, consumers will be passive, estranged from their own skills, and disengaged from one another. “Once we are reduced to total passivity in our cars and homes, we are no longer inhabiting them,” he said. “We are kept by them.”
On his way to Radwood from New York, Roy was pulled over for speeding, in the BMW M5 that he’d raced in the Cannonball Run.” At the meet-up, he placed an informational stand for the H.D.A. between his car and a kiosk for Hagerty Classic Car Insurance. A group of twentysomethings approached to take photos of the infamous M5.
“Do you know about the Human Driving Association?” Roy asked them. “We’re a nonpartisan, apolitical lobbying group. We want to protect the right to own a car and to have a steering wheel.”
“Oh, my God, I gotta get in on that,” one man said. He added his name to the mailing list.
“This is the future of car shows,” Roy told me. “The less cool it is, the cooler it is. These people will be the last generation of true car lovers.” He looked wistful. The automotive journalist Blake Z. Rong stopped by to say hello.
“Someone just gave me this Peugeot 205 Rallye steering wheel!” Rong said. “Do you want it?”
Roy declined the offer. “There’s a war on driving!” he called to people walking by. “Pick your side!”
Later, we ambled around the Navy Yard to look at the cars. Around us, people sporting Nike high-tops and a few vintage boomboxes posed for Instagram photos in front of their adolescent dream cars, in a surprisingly earnest celebration of a lost era.
“It’s very obvious that one hundred percent of the people sign up for our list because cars are an extension of the self,” Roy said. “Even if cars were one-hundred-per-cent safe—even if they were free—they would still want to own one. There’s something happening here beyond a car.”
I nodded, contemplating the low-tech Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics of my childhood. If I squinted, I could almost see them as the horse and buggies of the future.