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Will today’s cars soon be replaced by autonomous vehicles? Technically it’s possible, but there ...
2018-12-05 10:00:00

Of Apes and Automobiles
The Future of Self-Driving Cars

Illustration by Natka Bimer
Of Apes and Automobiles
Of Apes and Automobiles
Read in 11 minutes

Your current car is the last one you’ll own. In 10 years, we’ll solely use fleets of autonomous vehicles. That’s really how it’ll be – unless human nature rebels.

A warm, sunny morning in Kibale National Park in Uganda. A few female chimpanzees walk lazily to a group of fruit trees. The dominant female climbs calmly up to the highest bough, and the rest sit lower down. The fruits higher up are larger and riper. Spread out proudly at the top of the tree, the chimp had to fight a long, brutal struggle for her spot; the symbol of her status.

Here’s another scene, from a different troop. We’re in a research camp run by Frans de Waal. For years, the dominant male here was Yeroen. At a certain moment, a young, ambitious chimpanzee called Nikkie started to push his way to the fore. Alongside various political operations and ritual combat, the two males undertook a peculiar type of rivalry, in which they made bloodless public demonstrations to show their masculine virtues. They bristled their fur, attacked imaginary opponents, and competed in lifting and moving aside increasingly heavy objects.

And one more story, this time about how the Italian researcher Elisabetta Visalberghi decided to play a joke on her chimpanzees. First, she patiently taught them how to use a device that dropped out a nut if they pushed a long stick into it – at least until one night, when she replaced it with a different machine, which looked identical but contained a hidden trick. Now the nut fell out only half the time. For the monkeys, this was a shock. Upon first contact with the new, capricious machine, they clearly became upset, trying to tear it apart and beating it with their sticks.

Perhaps it’s not visible at first sight, but these three anecdotes reveal three key reasons as to why we may not see a great technological and social revolution in the next few decades.

Only good reasons

At first glance, the question is simple. There are various excellent, rational arguments for why, in the very near future, we should replace cars driven by people with those that operate independently – autonomous vehicles without human intervention.

First of all, it’s possible. The entire history of cars is in fact a story of increasing automation. From where, after all, did we get the word ‘automobile’? Today, almost nobody remembers crank-starting a car; soon manual chokes will also pass into history, and who knows whether the manual transmission will follow. Nor is anybody surprised by advertisements for self-parking cars, or the newest Audi A8, equipped with the Traffic Jam Pilot system, which provides fully automatic driving in tailbacks. A vehicle that can creep at a snail’s pace right up to the bumper of the next car can now be programmed in Lego Mindstorms. Even though there is still no fully automatic car on the market today – a car that doesn’t require a human steering system – we can say with great certainty that such cars may appear very soon. There are already convincing demonstrations. Semi-autonomous cars, where the human operator intervenes only in extraordinary situations, today regularly cover hundreds of kilometres. And in February 2018, Starsky Robotics dared to send its automatic lorry, with no human being at all in the cab, on an 11-kilometre test route around Florida. Everything went well.

Second, it’s safe. Although in March 2018 the entire world was electrified by news of the first fatal accident involving a car operating in autonomous mode, there’s no arguing with the statistics. The cause of car accidents is almost always human error (and here we’re not at all referring to accidents where a fast, intelligent decision was required). An autonomous car won’t get drunk and it won’t show off to its friends. We can also be certain that, whether we like it or not, it won’t exceed the speed limit. Infrared and laser sensors (lidar) do much better in the dark than human eyes.

Third, it’s more economical. Cars stand unused about 95% of the time. We really don’t need so many ageing, rarely-used vehicles, taking up so much unnecessary space. 14% of the area of Los Angeles constitutes parking spaces, and there are most certainly cars parked outside your window right now. Humans’ transport needs can be completely satisfied by a much smaller fleet of professionally-serviced vehicles, ordered through a mobile application similar to Uber. There is an extensive bibliography of scientific articles estimating the size of such a fleet as a proportion of the current number of cars. A study of Singapore gives a value of 33-40%. An article examining the case of Manhattan stated that if New Yorkers agreed to wait five minutes for transport, it would be enough to let about 15% of the current number of cars onto the island. A Swiss group, analysing transport in the Zurich region, including trips outside the city over longer distances, reached a result of 10% – similar to researchers from Lisbon.

So at first glance, all arguments seem to support the enthusiasm with which BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt recently wrote that the car you’re driving today is most likely the last one you’ll own. To silence the mouths of the sceptics who doubt that the revolution can happen so quickly, the writer added to the article a couple of perfectly-selected photos of Fifth Avenue in New York. In the first, there are horse-drawn carriages as far as the eye can see. The second shows only cars.

They were taken 13 years apart.

We must admit that the vision is tempting. If autonomous cars were safe, and brought us where we needed to go; if the fleet were really big enough and if using it were cheaper than financing your own car, then, well, why not?

Yeroen and Nikkie

This male universe is of course detectable by analyzing its combustible chemical formula: gasoline, gunpowder, alcohol and adrenaline. A chemistry rendered even more lethal by that ever-present, ever-delightful accelerant: testosterone.”

– George Carlin

The use of cars to demonstrate male attributes is a phenomenon so widely known that it’s probably not necessary to cite scientific works. Of course, such research exists, confirming all the stereotypes (in a way that rarely happens in science) about the relationship between gender and cars. Yes, men cause accidents more frequently than women, even when we consider that they drive more often. Yes, men more often engage in aggressive behaviours behind the wheel. Yes, young men more often drive in a risky fashion if somebody from their age group is in the passenger seat. Psychological literature even describes a relationship between macho values (measured on two scales, with the charming names ‘Violence-Is-Male’ and ‘Danger-Is-Exciting’) and a driver’s profile. In short, male research subjects aged 20-67 who frequently agreed with statements such as “It’s natural for a man to get in fights sometimes” also had cars with larger engines.

In the light of this insurmountable drive of the homo sapiens to show the entire world how manly they are, I think the complete disappearance of the private passenger car remains only a fantasy. I also suspect that even if over time driving a car were outlawed – which is sometimes seriously considered – people would find a way to get around the rule, or it would simply be broken. After all, drag racing is often illegal, which in reality only adds to its appeal. What’s more, the complete disappearance of cars with human drivers, at least in the very near future, is of course nonsense. Motorsports won’t disappear overnight, and foresters won’t monitor trees in an electric taxi. But the question remains: if the next few decades bring the most extreme version of the revolution in autonomous motoring (i.e. completely clearing the public roads of vehicles driven by human hands), how in practice will people meet the need to dynamically drive something a little louder and faster than an electric Toyota? Because the need won’t disappear so quickly.

The top of the tree

You make so much money and you’re still driving an estate?

– Anonymous

Let’s imagine that we ask a representative sample of Poles what the phrase ‘a truly rich person’ means for them. Well, we don’t have to imagine it – the CBOS polling agency asks this question regularly. The most common responses to the question of what really rich people have is “large companies”, “factories”, “industrial plants”. The second sign of riches is a beautiful house: “a luxurious house with a pool”; some actually use the word “palace”. In third place is a car, and not just any car: “expensive”, “luxurious”, “the latest model”. Many add that a really rich person has not just one, but several beautiful cars. Interestingly, truly costly items are farther down the polling agency’s list: yachts, artworks, or private planes are mentioned as signs of riches by less than 2% of the population. This is understandable at root – you can’t see from a person’s everyday appearance that there’s a yacht waiting for him in Monaco, and even a Patek Philippe can be hidden under the sleeve of a jacket. But if somebody’s driving a Maybach, you can see it right away.

Sociologists are quite fond of the concept of social status. Zoologists also like it, particularly researchers who study mammals that live in groups, like homo sapiens do. The thing is, while in the small groups in which apes live, each individual knows more or less what position the others occupy, humans spend most of their time among strangers. Chimpanzees signal their social status quite discreetly – not always so clearly as in the aforementioned case from Uganda, which was described by the primatologist Sonya Kahlenberg. But people do this totally ostentatiously. After all, how will all the proles around me know that I’m the busy director of an important department of an international corporation, which entitles me, as we all know, to a range of important social privileges, first and foremost the right to efficient service at the meat counter? It’s simple – it’s enough for me to drive an expensive car to the butcher’s.

The nut machine

A truly autonomous car would be one where you request it to take you to work and it decides to go to the beach.”

– A Nissan engineer, quoted in AutoTrader magazine

The aforementioned research of Visalberghi can illustrate many attributes of primate psychology, from simple anger over losing a nut, to the fear of the new (i.e. neophobia) that’s known in this group, through an aversion to giving up control. For a long time, the nut machine behaved in a predictable, submissive fashion. When it refused to cooperate, it exposed itself to the anger of the animals participating in the experiment. This is the frustration we all experience when a part of our reality, thus far known and predictable, slips out of our control.

Home appliances that do physical work for us – from washing clothes or dishes, through vacuum cleaning – also take away a little bit of our freedom every time. But the advantages we derive from these machines seem to vastly exceed the lost degrees of freedom. It’s true that a dishwasher has only three programmes and that I have to fit all the subtleties of doing the washing up into one of three closed options. Yet this doesn’t cause, at least for me, an intense feeling of helplessness. In fact, it appeared only when I was faced with an electric stove that offered me a measly five levels of heat. First, because I like to see the flame, the level of which I can change in half a second and which also can’t be replaced by a hot induction plate when, for example, I need to char an onion. Second, I’m deeply convinced that five degrees of freedom aren’t enough. I mean, sometimes you need to turn the heat down just that tiny wee little bit.

Even if these objections simply spring from my lack of experience with new technology, I think they’re a good illustration of the problems that will enrage future users of autonomous vehicles. Let’s note that full control over a vehicle is also freedom to take unwise, suboptimal decisions. We humans love decisions that don’t fit with any economic or ecological reckoning. Will autonomous cars allow us to spontaneously turn right, off the optimal route, because we had a desire to drive down the road with a view of our old school? Will it be possible to drive into puddles to make a spectacular splash? What about mindlessly revving the engine at a traffic light? And even if each of these functions were somehow miraculously available to the passenger of an autonomous vehicle, choosing it from the control panel would no longer be a spontaneous, living act of freedom, but some kind of sorry, miserable shadow of such an act – like ordering one of your porters to kick up the dry leaves by the hedge.

Universally-available, publicly-used autonomous vehicles are a realistic, ecological, economical and rational vision. But they mean removing from human life another form of expression. And a car is not only a means of transport. It’s also a means of expression.

We express our freedom in every act, even the most innocent ones. It might be failing to completely clean the frying pan after cooking black pudding – or, on the contrary, obsessively scrubbing it until it shines. A good dishwasher, which does it properly, takes this freedom away from us. Let’s not ignore the loss of these smallest freedoms, these micro-acts of creativity. Because alternatives are hard to find.


Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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