Autonomy lost, autonomous vehicles found

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
I have a question for you, based on a story from Chinatown in San Francisco.

During a street celebration of the lunar new year, a mob surrounded a self-driving car. There was no-one inside. They pummelled the car with whatever came to hand, including, and this seems very San Francisco, a skateboard. They jumped on the bonnet, sprayed the car with graffiti and smashed one of its windows.

No-one tried to stop them, although, as is customary these days, numerous bystanders took to their phones and filmed them. (I remember a time, not so very long ago, when those last seven words would have made no sense.)

Then a firework was tossed through the broken window, the upholstery caught fire and that was that. The car was incinerated. The mob dispersed.

And my question: is there a tiny part of you that is cheering? There is in me.

The car belonged to Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is a company based in San Francisco with a stock market valuation of about $1.7 trillion. (I remember a time, not so very long ago, when Google wasn’t a word.)

Waymo is one of several companies to have used the streets of San Francisco as a testing ground for their self-driving cars. And the cars are quite commonly attacked — their tyres slashed, their bodywork graffitied.

A group called the Safe Street Rebels have made it their business to disrupt and disable driverless vehicles. In the process they have discovered, delightfully, that standing a traffic cone on the bonnet is enough to interfere with the car’s sensors and send the thing into panic mode. It is then dependent on a human employee to come and calm its nerves to get it moving again.

The Safe Street Rebels, as their name suggests, believe that driverless cars are dangerous. And there have, indeed, been accidents. A dog has been killed by a driverless car, a cyclist injured, and a female pedestrian, having been struck by an ordinary car, was flung into the path of a driverless car which then dragged her some distance and came to a halt on top of her.

However, in the same time that driverless cars have slain one dog, cars driven by human beings have run over whole packs of dogs, and sent countless cyclists and pedestrians to meet their maker. It would seem that a self-driving car is far less likely to cause an accident than a car with you, me or mad Uncle Bill at the wheel.

And self-driving cars have other virtues. In some areas of the US and China they have been used as taxis. Being driverless they are cheap to hire, and it is easy to see how they could bring about a transport revolution, with city dwellers no longer feeling the need to own a car.

This in turn would reduce the call for parking and garaging, and, since self-driving cars are electric, would make the city quieter and cleaner.

So what was the mob up to? Why did they pick on the self-driving car? And why is there a part of me that feels some sympathy with them?

Well, for a start, there’s nothing new here. In the English midlands in the late 18th century a weaver by the name of Ned Ludd is said to have smashed some new-fangled weaving frames because they threatened his livelihood. The story probably isn’t true, but it’s true to a certain human spirit. The mob are the new Luddites.

For technology is always changing and change is daunting. People feel powerless before it and threatened by it. Beating up a car may just be a form of regaining a sense of power.

The colossi of the digital age — Facebook, Microsoft, Google — have gained huge power and wealth in only a few years. And they have done so by worming their way into our homes, our pockets and our lives, until we have become dependent on them and they know all about us.

We have brought this on ourselves, of course. We have walked willingly into the trap, but in doing so we have surrendered a degree of our autonomy. We feel less in charge of our world than we were before. And what better symbol could there be of a loss of autonomy than a self-driving car?

"I am the master of my fate," declared William Henley, "I am the captain of my soul."

It’s a delusion, of course — we are all the playthings of time, chance and biology — but it’s a delusion most like to cling to.

Hence, I suspect, the incinerated car. And hence, too, my degree of sympathy.

 - Joe Bennett is a Lyttelton writer.