Imagine this: You enter a car with no steering wheel, no brake or accelerator pedals. Under a voice-activated command, you say an address.
"The fastest route will take us 15.3 minutes. Should I take it?"
You say "yes" and are on your way. The car responds and starts moving all by itself. All you have to do is kick back and relax, presumably watching the news on a screen mounted in front of you, or surfing the Internet.
You notice that the panel has only two buttons: a start button and a big red emergency stop button. The car is electric and the ride is silent and smooth. Great for a quick nap — if you trust the machine with your life, that is.
How weird would it be if, one day in the future, everyone had such cars? No crazy driving, no insults, no cutting; traffic laws would be respected and, if the increased safety assessments really pan out as they seem to be, much safer driving. On the other hand, imagine the cash flow impact on local police enforcement and town budgets without all those speeding and parking tickets. Safer, yes. But also less freedom for us as humans.
On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that allows testing of self-driving cars — even without a driver sitting in a driver's seat. The law makes it clear that the testing is confined to private roads and to speeds under 35 mph. However, it opens the way to a new era of automated cars, where humans have less and less to do. The engineers at Google must be celebrating.
This is an example where a new technology has the potential to change modern society in radical ways. There's no question that self-driving vehicles could be an enormous benefit. The potential for safer cars means accident statistics would plummet: Some 94 percent of road accidents in the U.S. involve human error. Older drivers and visually or physically impaired people would gain a new level of freedom. Keeping up at safe speeds and being electric, self-driving cars would drastically reduce pollution levels and dependency on nonrenewable fuels. The change would create new technological spinoffs and generate a new class of experts. Roads would be quieter, people safer. So far, so good.
But we must also consider the impact of the new technology on those who now depend on driving for their livelihoods. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in May 2015 there were 505,560 registered school bus drivers making an average of $14.70/hour. The American Trucking Associations lists approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. Adding those employed by the industry, including nondriving jobs, brings the total to 8.7 million, roughly 1 in 15 workers in the country. Meanwhile, Nevada authorized the first self-driving truck, a stunning Daimler 18-wheeler that looks like the Transformers' Optimus Prime, as you can see in this video.
The future is here.
The companies developing self-driving vehicles should be partnering with state and federal authorities to offer retraining jobs and opportunities for this massive workforce, many of whom will be displaced and made obsolete by the new technologies. This is a familiar story, similar to what is happening to many in the coal and oil industries, a situation that fuels much of the current political discontent in this country.
New technologies will, and should, be developed. This is how society moves forward. However, progress can't be one-sided. It behooves the companies and state agencies involved in such developments to consider the ethical consequences of these potential changes so as to build a more just and equitable future. We don't want utopia to become dystopia.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser