Highway driving: a human era adventure

Self-driving cars have hit a bit of a speedbump since the fatality in Phoenix last year in which an SDC with a distracted human co-pilot failed to cope with a human jaywalker. Nevertheless, the imminence of SDC as well as the AI features already found in cars still nominally human-driven put in a different light what would otherwise have been an unremarkable drive to Hartford a few months back.

The following is the sort of story that one may be telling one’s grandchildren in the not too distant future, as a resident of California in 1910 might have told his grandkids about a perilous journey across the American West back in 1880.

Yes, kids, back in ’18 your grandmother and I drove our car to Hartford. Yep, we actually drove it ourselves. We took the scenic route on two-lane highways much of the way after Providence. We had to turn the wheel carefully so as to stay on the narrow strip of pavement winding through field and forest, especially after it got dark. No room for error, of course. One false move (an ill-timed sneeze) and we’d be in a ditch. When a car came from the other direction , though lowering its beams, a courtesy left to the discretion of the driver in those days, we were still blinded, having to rely on experience in aiming at the right side of those lights and hope for the best until they passed.

We emerged from the backroad onto the 4 to 6 lanes of I-84, getting up to the speed of the flow of cars and trucks sharing that speedway. Everybody on the road was doing the same thing, everyone, including the drivers of the many huge trucks, in charge of keeping their vehicle on the road and from contacting other cars, all this at 75 miles an hour, in the dark. (It would have been even more dangerous in the rain.)

It was like being part of a thundering herd of mechanized monsters, like a stampede of dinosaurs in an old Jurassic Park movie. Each vehicle run by a fellow human, each of us not only totally reliant on our own eyesight and reaction time, but on that of the other drivers on the road. Although they were strangers to us (and who really knew what sort of people they might be, how much they valued life, what sort of physical shape they were in, or whether they had been drinking) were dependent on them to stay in their lanes, not to twitch this way or that and cause catastrophe, as we hurtled through the night.

It was an amazing example of civilized cooperation.

Wasn’t it dangerous? Of course it was. In those years 40 thousand people died on highways every year, many more maimed.

And you can be sure we were relieved when we arrived at our friends’ house in Hartford without having made the slightest contact with another vehicle and could sit back and have a drink.

And yet how strange it will be on that same highway, charging at high speed toward Hartford, when instead of counting on the competence of strangers in the other cars, all the occupants will be obliviously googling, texting, watching Youtubes, perhaps having that drink to prepare for arrival. All of us ignoring the trip itself, in a sense not even there, completely dependent for our lives on the algorithms in charge of the driving.

Maybe the grandchildren will clamor to be taken to the mini-car racetrack to get a hit of the adventure of driving themselves. Yeah, I imagine myself saying, but you’ll never be able to parallel park, a tricky maneuver but the common test of driving competency in the old days.


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