By coincidence, my dog, Betsy, is also 14, and my fear is that she may be beginning to show a few signs of the accumulated years. Two nights ago, her keening and sobbing woke us out of a sound sleep. Unhappily, Betsy had soiled herself, and, being a poodle, appeared to exhibit the full range of chagrined human-like expressions, not limited to shame, fear, outrage, and self-disgust (but not denial, never that.) This morning, however, she seemed once again bright and lively, more like herself, so how can you ever know what to expect from any 14-year-old?
That will exclude the one thing you absolutely can’t do at that age, which is drive a car. And yet, here is Google, attempting to do exactly that. The company has been developing autonomous vehicles, which find their way via computers, video cameras, GPS systems, radar sensors and pre-programmed maps. The only feature these babies lack, as the joke is told again and again in the precinct house, is the nut behind the wheel.
It seems Google has gone ahead and whipped up a dozen of the driver-less jalopies. In fact, the autonomous fleet has already logged 480,000 km, “without an accident,” as the company’s flacks will enthuse. That’s good, because previously when a car took off without a driver it was pretty much even-steven that an accident would follow, and some of them were doozies. Of course, there was never a shortage of smack-ups, even when you did have a driver, so just call it a wash.
Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown, the intense politician they used to call “Moonbeam,” signed a bill into law allowing these robot-driven automobiles, proclaiming, “Well, since you’ve obviously paid no attention to our existing road-traffic laws up to this point, the lobbyists tell me I have no choice but to change the rules to make your activities legal.” Actually, he didn’t say that. What he said was entirely in keeping with what you’d predict of someone nicknamed Moonbeam: “We’re looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow’s reality.”
And that’s a good thing, how exactly?
Proponents of the project point to driverless cars as a way to conserve fuel, manage gridlock, provide new mobility to disabled humans, maximize routing efficiency, and prevent drunken, whacked-out, and idiotic humans from steering their Dodge Rams into bus shelters filled with nuns. Each of these developments would be welcome, but first we need to be very clear about something.
You’re going to put your children… into a car… that has no driver… and then entrust the entire process of getting Princess and Buddy from Point A to Point B… to the moonbeams who run Google? Somehow, I don’t think so.
This is the exact-same data-mining, personal profile building, privacy-snooping Google that stealthfully studies your habits, so that they can intrude upon you while you’re shopping on-line for, let’s say, pornographic videos, and then make recommendations of their own, on behalf of their sponsors. (Many of these helpful Google-generated recommendations may be considered distasteful, not to mention difficult to engineer for fellows older than, oh, 38.)
But the essential perfidious nature of Google is not the main issue that concerns us. It is that we are and have always been drivers, not passengers, and we haven’t been able to abide being chauffeured ever since that life-changing day when mom stopped dropping us at soccer practice.
Perhaps Gov. Brown has no problem surrendering his freedom to a company whose raison d’etre is to deliver advertising messages to eyeballs, not commuters to lonely cubicles. But I say again, on your behalf and mine: We are drivers. For my part, I will resist, with considerable vehemence, any attempt by Google to mechanically intone, “Where to, bub?”, as it lurches into the traffic — and not only because I generally have very little idea where it is I want to go.
There is a phrase that begins to describe that quest, that yearning: “Freedom of the open road.” That is what I crave, with the emphasized term being, “freedom.”
Kerouac wrote about it. Chuck Berry extolled it in his song, No Particular Place To Go. Later, Supertramp expanded on the identical theme in Take the Long Way Home. Stated non-musically, I do not want to be continuously tracked, monitored, and recorded each day on my way home from work. I do not wish to struggle for the wheel with R2D2, when he advises me about the big 50 percent-off sale on genuine Swiss cuckoo clocks, over at Tudbury’s — and then insists that is where I need to be. I demand the freedom to be anonymous (not autonomous) long enough to lie brazenly to the constable about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. No, officer. Of course I didn’t stop at the Hare and Hound for 40 minutes, to wait out the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Absolutely, I had my seatbelt fastened. There is no possible way that I could have been texting while behind the wheel. No, officer.
Deny me these few small liberties, and what I will do is walk. Thanks for your concern all the same, Google — and one more time, a happy birthday to you — but you can keep your self-driving car, and park it somewhere near where the incontinent poodles like to play.