Last time, we discussed the upside for the anticipated self-driving revolution. When autonomous cars arrive, they promise better safety, reduced urban traffic and parked cars, improved mobility for the elderly and disabled, and possibly massive environmental benefits.
However, there are also some considerable downsides, and this time we’re looking at four.
1. What about the joy of driving?
Remember when you first passed your test? Or the first time you dared put your foot down in your little hatchback? Or maybe more recently, having a spirited drive on a great road? For many car owners, driving offers a thrill and an excitement that’s unlike anything else. You don’t need to go mental on a public road to feel it, and you don’t need an Italian sportscar either: it’s all about the feeling of freedom and being in control. A good drive can put you right in the zone, that coveted flow state where the world feels so right.
So, what happens to all that when cars do everything for us? A world where algorithms do all the driving will be safer and more orderly… but perhaps also that wee bit duller, more anodyne, somehow more sanitised.
2. Autonomous cars may be vulnerable to hackers
Let’s say someone wants to maliciously interfere with your daily drive. Maybe it’s because they don’t like you personally, or maybe you live in a country they don’t like, or maybe they’re just bored and malicious. And let’s also say that you drive a 1998 Mk 4 Volkswagen Golf, a great car that’s about as ‘smart’ and connected as a teapot. In this scenario, the only way they can interfere with your ancient Golf is to physically interact with it. That means getting to your location, risking identification and/or being caught in the act.
Now imagine your 2026 car, smarter than you are and connected to everything: manufacturer servers (for over-the-air updates), road infrastructure, other vehicles, social media. Remember that just about every connected thing seems hackable, if that’s a word, from Amazon’s Ring surveillance cameras to nuclear facilities.* Isn’t there a nightmare scenario of activists or a foreign power remotely controlling our cars, to create carnage? Or on a smaller scale, some annoying oik standing at an intersection with a phone and a bad attitude? We’ve no idea how feasible this is — maybe we watch too much sci-fi — but at the least, we know that the first attempts at automation immediately showed vulnerabilities:
In 2015, security researchers demonstrated a security flaw in a Jeep Cherokee being driven by a Wired writer. From the comfort of their couch, more than 10 miles away, the two ‘hackers’ were able to mess with the AC, windshield wipers, radio before shutting off the engine while the Cherokee was being driven down the highway. More than 1.4 million cars were recalled after that demo to have anti-hacking software installed.
*We were literally writing that sentence when a news story popped up about a ransomware attack on KP Snacks. Is nothing sacred?
3. De-skilling is a thing
Here’s a little test for you. Using a paper and pencil, and no phone or computer, work out 327 divided by 84, to three decimal places.
Tried it? How was that? If it’s been a while, don’t be surprised if it was a struggle. Every sort of cognitive and motor skill, from playing an instrument to speaking a language, needs practice to maintain it. That includes driving. Last year, we wrote about the de-skilling that had occurred over lockdown, with around a third of drivers reporting increased nervousness and decreased ability. And that was over a few months. The question is how much skill deterioration will occur after five or ten years of your car driving itself.
It’s true that this might not matter one bit — why practise something you’ll never need? There’s a good reason why teaching slide rule skills has disappeared from the curriculum.
The big problem with this view is that de-skilling would leave us completely dependent on autonomous systems and networks. What happens if there’s a long-lasting power cut or network outage, and thousands of profoundly de-skilled drivers need to use the roads? More generally, perhaps self-driving cars are part of a creeping dependance on digital technology that’s leading to humans outsourcing their basic abilities. After all, why remember an address when your phone can do it, or find your own way from A to B? We’re not advocating joining the Amish, but we don’t want to turn into machine-tended babies either.
4. What will happen to all the driving-related jobs?
The three disadvantages we’ve outlined above pale into insignificance compared to this one. It seems pretty likely that fully automated vehicles will deprive hundreds of thousands of their livelihood. One estimate puts the figure at 1.2 million in the UK alone. Which organisation will employ a driver for pizza deliveries, haulage, or taxi services when an autonomous vehicle can do it far cheaper?
The glib answer is to say that people displaced by technology have always found new jobs in the past, so we will adapt. But that neglects the fact that automation is fast taking over other jobs too. To give one example, this year Tescos are trialling their first fully autonomous stores.
In the Silicon Valley vision of the future, none of this matters, because we’ll all retrain as software engineers and skateboard off to our high-paid jobs at Apple. But somehow that seems a distant world to finding yourself jobless and unemployable in Blighty.
So… autonomous cars, yea or nay?
There’s no doubt that autonomous vehicles offer some huge advantages. None of the four pro’s we described in Part One are to be sniffed at. But the problem with shining visions of the future is that they can blind us to some unpleasant realities. We would dearly love to end this two-part article with a massive thumbs-up for a new and exciting technology, but for now the potential effects of automation on employment — especially for lower-skilled people — seem too great to gloss over.
Still, a more realistic scenario is that autonomous vehicles and driving will co-exist for years to come, so maybe there’s time to adapt. We’re confident that an app will figure it all out.
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