Source: The New Yorker
In March, 2018, General Motors announced that it would invest a hundred million dollars in a new car called the Cruise AV. On the outside, the Cruise resembles an ordinary car. But, on the inside, it’s what the automotive industry calls a “level five” autonomous vehicle: a car with no steering wheel, gas pedal, or human-operated brake. Ford, too, plans to release a car without a steering wheel, by 2021; Navya, a French company, already produces level-five shuttles and taxis, and has partnered with cities such as Luxembourg City and Abu Dhabi. Silicon Valley futurists and many Detroit executives see such cars as the inevitable future of driving. By taking people out of the driver’s seat, they aim to make travelling by automobile as safe as flying in a plane.
Last fall, the Philadelphia Navy Yard hosted Radwood, a car meet-up with a very different conception of the automotive future. The only cars allowed at Radwood are ones manufactured between 1980 and 2000. When I visited, early one morning, people had gathered around a red 1991 Volvo GL. The car was well worn from thousands of school drop-offs and soccer practices; its cracked leather driver’s seat still showed the gentle indent of its owner’s behind. Its most advanced technological feature was cruise control. Still, its hood was proudly propped open, in normcore glory. Speakers blasted the Talking Heads’ 1980 hit “Once in a Lifetime,” while, nearby, a man dressed in a nineties-style pink-and-blue windbreaker jumpsuit posed for a photo before a Volkswagen Westfalia. Other attendees cooed over a faded teal-green Ford Taurus, a twenty-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer, and a rusting Volkswagen Rabbit—the mundane cars that, in the previous millennium, had roamed the automotive landscape.
Radwood was first held in San Francisco, in 2017; this year, it’s being held in around a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and Sodegaura, Japan. With their molded-plastic exteriors, aerodynamic spoilers, and pop-up headlights, many of the cars at Radwood share an aesthetic. What really unites them, however, is their status as relics. They hail from an era when engine controls weren’t fully computerized, and when cars could be fixed using hand tools. They represent a relationship to technology that has now vanished—one that privileges user involvement over convenience. “The majority of people who are fans of cars in this era want to be able to work on their own cars,” Bradley Brownell, one of Radwood’s co-founders, told me. “When you buy cars like these, you’re getting something rawer. Half of these don’t even have A.B.S.”
In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” from 2009, the political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that manual competence—our ability to repair the machines and devices in our lives—is a kind of ethical practice. Knowing how to fix things ourselves creates opportunities for meaningful work and individual agency; it allows us to grasp more deeply the built world around us. The mass-market economy, Crawford writes, produces devices that are practically impenetrable. If we try to repair our microwaves or printers, we’ll quickly be discouraged by their complexity; many cars produced today lack even dipsticks to check their oil levels. Driving the Tesla Model 3 has been compared to using a giant iPhone: instead of controlling the car directly, one seems to pilot it by means of a user interface.
Many people, Crawford thinks, yearn to revolt against “the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines.” Some of them attend Radwood. One twenty-six-year-old salesperson for a popular automotive Web site told me that he didn’t “want to be a test dummy for Tesla.” He owns a few pre-2000 cars, and sees them as valuable investments. At Radwood, he said, he had become a member of the Human Driving Association, an organization aiming to protect people’s freedom of movement and right to drive their own cars. The H.D.A. imagines a future in which, for safety reasons, human driving is made illegal. To prevent this scenario from coming to pass, it advocates laws requiring carmakers to include a steering wheel in every vehicle; it also argues that every future car should be fully drivable under hundred-per-cent human control. For members of the H.D.A., events like Radwood aren’t purely nostalgic. They’re an expression of resistance. They believe that, in a world of level-five autonomous vehicles, driving a 1991 Volvo GL could become a radical political act. It might make you an outlaw.
The Human Driving Association’s headquarters consists of a couple of desks in a shared loft in Manhattan’s Cooper Square. The organization’s founder, Alex Roy, is a forty-seven-year-old rally-car driver and entrepreneur with a sleek, shaved head, a strong jaw, and a mischievous way of raising his eyebrows. He is famous in racing circles for setting a record in the transcontinental Cannonball Run—a race immortalized by the 1981 movie of the same name, starring Burt Reynolds. The Run is still unofficial, unsanctioned, and hugely illegal; it requires contenders to employ radar jammers, escape police chases, and break speed limits. In 2006, driving a BMW M5, Roy crossed the United States in thirty-one hours and four minutes, at an average speed of ninety miles per hour. He honed his concentration by driving endless laps in the video game Forza Motorsport and planned his route meticulously, hitting only five red lights and two toll booths over twenty-eight hundred miles.
Unsurprisingly, Roy has deep misgivings about the prospect of a fully autonomous, steering-wheel-less future. In his view, cars that lack steering wheels or are inoperable when disconnected from communications networks subvert human agency, self-sufficiency, and freedom. He likes to say that human autonomy—as opposed to vehicular autonomy—is the only kind that matters. “Autonomy = freedom,” he has written. “The freedom to go anywhere, or nowhere at all, or to speed across the country for no damn good reason.”
Roy started the Human Driving Association in early 2018, after reading a manifesto written by Robin Chase, the entrepreneur and former C.E.O. of Zipcar. In the manifesto, “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities,” Chase outlines a now familiar vision for autonomous driving, in which dense urban areas are filled with autonomous vehicles that operate in fleets, so as to reduce congestion and emissions. “I just couldn’t understand why it had to be so binary—individual ownership or shared fleets,” Roy said. In ninety frenzied minutes, he wrote his own manifesto, which he published as an article for The Drive, an online car magazine. It begins with a picture of a steering wheel and the words “From my cold, dead hands,” and culminates by calling for a constitutional amendment creating a right to drive.
Roy’s sensational rhetoric belies the depth of his critiques. He charges journalists with accepting too quickly the autonomous-vehicle industry’s narrative of inevitability without interrogating its technological claims. Much has been written about the five levels of vehicular autonomy specified by the Society of Automotive Engineers. (They ascend from level zero, where most cars are today, to the fully autonomous level five.) And yet, Roy maintains, there is still broad disagreement about where various real-world systems, from Tesla’s autopilot to Cadillac’s Super Cruise, belong in that taxonomy. In his view, this has led to a widespread sense that autonomous-driving technology is further advanced than it really is—a dangerous misperception, because people may overestimate the self-driving capabilities of the cars they buy. Given today’s technology, he writes, “The bar for use of the words ‘autonomous’ and ‘self-driving’ needs to be set so high that no media outlet can exploit them for traffic, no car company can use them in a press release to boost their stock price, and most importantly, no driver thinks they can take their hands off the wheel, even temporarily.”
Roy also questions the widespread assertion that driverless cars are safer than those driven by humans. Car companies, he argues, have chosen the metrics by which autonomous safety is judged; some focus on the number of miles driven, others on how often hands-free systems must be disengaged, and so on. This data is selectively published; there is no common standard. He argues that no autonomous car has been proved to be safer than one with a human being behind the wheel.
Finally, Roy points out that many of the problems autonomous cars promise to solve also have simpler, non-technological solutions. (This is true, of course, only if one assumes that driving isn’t a problem in itself.) To reduce traffic, governments can invest in mass-transit and road infrastructure. To diminish pollution, they can build bike lanes and encourage the adoption of electric cars. In Roy’s opinion, the best way to make driving safer has nothing to do with technology: it’s to raise licensing standards and improve driver education. Over lunch—a Niçoise salad—Roy argued that our fixation on driverless cars flows from our civic laziness. “It’s easier to imagine that technology can solve a problem that education or regulation could also fix,” he said. In place of the driverless utopia that technologists often picture, he asked me to consider another possibility: a congested urban hellscape in which autonomous vehicles are subsidized by companies that pump them full of advertising; in exchange for free rides, companies might require you to pass by particular stores or watch commercial messages displayed on the vehicles’ windows. (A future very much like this was recently imagined by T. Coraghessan Boyle, in his short story “Asleep at the Wheel.”) In such a world, Roy said, “The joy of the ride is taken away.”
Waymo, the driverless-car firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been test-driving its autonomous vehicles in Arizona since 2016. People there have attacked the cars in a variety of ways: throwing rocks; cutting tires; aiming guns; trying to run them off the road. Like the Luddites of the early nineteenth century, who brandished hatchets, hammers, and muskets and smashed the mechanical looms that were taking their jobs, these attackers seem to be expressing a visceral feeling of contempt for the promised disruptions of autonomous technology. Their distrust and resentment may be widespread. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans say that they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle; seventy-two per cent of the skeptics said that they don’t trust the cars, have safety concerns, or simply worry about giving up control. And yet the same study shows that two-thirds of Americans expect cars to become driverless in the next fifty years. Who wouldn’t feel resentment, contemplating a future they don’t want but is going to happen anyway?
Meredith Broussard, a former software developer who is now a professor of data journalism at New York University, explores resistance to autonomous vehicles in her recent book, “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.” “The people who are protesting and messing with these vehicles—I wish we would listen to them,” she told me. Broussard argues that the autonomous-vehicle industry has short-circuited the debate around the issue of safety. “The logical fallacy is where they say, ‘If you don’t adopt our technology, people will die,’ ” she explained. “It shuts down the conversation. No one wants someone to die.”