In 1997, an IBM computer called Deep Blue defeated the then-reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. It had never before happened that a computer had won a match against a current champion, though a year earlier a lesser version of Deep Blue managed to win a single game. The '97 model could reportedly do 200 million calculations per second, a feature that, through brute force, proved too much for Kasparov.
Deep Blue's win was celebrated by those in the computer industry, but other people saw in the machine's victory a loss for humanity and a sign of things to come. Now, about 20 years later comes one of those things, so-called autonomous or "robot" cars.
Given all the publicity that has surrounded the development and road tests of self-driving automobiles, one would think that the advent of such things has been, like a search for the Fountain of Youth, the long-time and passionately held hope of millions. Well — not so much.
In fact, and as reported in a recent Bloomberg article, "Billions Are Being Invested in a Robot That Americans Don't Want," three-quarters of drivers don't want an autonomous car. The reason most often cited is fear that the car's computer will fail in some way, yielding an accident.
But there are other reasons why people don't want the thing. They're the freedom and joy of driving. To quote one of the sources for the Bloomberg article, "I hope there will still be communities of people like me who like to control the vehicle. But we might not be able to drive that car on the street."
And it's that fear — the possibility that by law or regulation, autonomous cars will be mandated or favored by government — that is the dark underbelly of the movement. One of the most likely and earlier such moves might be to restrict certain lanes of traffic just for driverless cars, something that would almost certainly yield a reduction in the number of lanes available to cars with drivers.
And right on cue comes news of the creation of a powerful new lobby formed by Google, Uber, Lyft, Ford and Volvo, disingenuously named the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. As reported in The Guardian, one of the first concerns of this group is to influence liability laws in the event of accidents. As stated by a San Francisco accident and personal injury lawyer, "I'm worried a lobbying group would try to shield manufacturers and app designers over drivers."
Ford's participation in the coalition is less understandable than that of Google or Uber, both of which stand to profit from the development and widespread use of autonomous cars. But Ford manufactures, among other models, the muscle cars called Mustangs, versions of which, like the GT and the Shelby GT350, come with engines that deliver 435 and 526 horsepower, respectively. How many of the purchasers of those cars would do so in order to let computers drive them?
Perhaps the explanation is that Ford believes the adoption of robot cars will not hurt the sale of its performance cars, but if so, that is a hope that may be dashed by government as laws and policies come to reflect a preference for autonomous autos.
It is known that over 30,000 people die annually in auto accidents. It is an appalling number and the source of the deepest kind of heartache for their loved ones. But the fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is that motor vehicle deaths in the United States, and deaths relative to the population, have both declined precipitously. The annual number of vehicular deaths, including that to pedestrians, has in recent years been in the low 30,000s, while in much of the '70s it was in the low 50,000s, and the fatalities per 100,000 population have fallen from over 25 in 1973 to a little over 10 in 2014. This improvement has been a result of improved construction, safety features and use, and it points the way forward to a further reduction in auto fatalities.
Government, though, has grown increasingly domineering in recent years — witness the requirement that citizens purchase health insurance — and one can easily imagine officials in Washington, single-issue interest groups like environmentalists, and corporations interested in growing their profits with an assist from government all pushing for discriminatory kinds of laws on the claim that self-driving cars will save lives.
It would be a shame if it comes to that, because the only thing certain about robot cars, widely adopted, is that they will represent just one more example of the ascendancy of machines over human beings.
Maines is president of the Media Institute. The opinions expressed are those of Maines alone and not of the Media Institute, its trustees, advisory councils or contributors.