A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked the following question of his Facebook followers: "Do we really need driver-less cars?" My answer was a perfunctory "yes," but I now feel that I should have given a more detailed response, as many people still seem to be on the fence when it comes to automated vehicles. Personally, I think the question is moot at this point. We need driver-less cars; the sooner, the better. After years, if not decades, of technological upheaval, I believe we are poised for another major leap forward.
As a child, I watched science fiction films and TV shows with fascination and anticipation. When I grew up, the world would be free of poverty, disease, warfare and strife. We would fly in space ships, befriend other species and skate on hoverboards! These days, my generation tends to feel cheated, because we haven't made as much progress as we would have liked. In fact, it sometimes seems that we have made no progress whatsoever.
The truth is more prosaic: our predecessors—the giants whose shoulders we stand upon—provided us with systems and processes to automate certain functions in our lives. As a result, our telecommunications have progressed beyond science fiction; global travel has become commonplace; we have more knowledge at our fingertips than any library building; and, we have even sent a space craft to Mars. Closer to home, technology has become an indispensable part of the social fabric.
In recent years, we have embraced a hacker culture, which seeks to streamline our everyday processes and systems. Have you taken a taxi lately or do you uber? Do you have a "personal computer" at home or do you simply use your phone? Do you shop at retail outlets or online? Chances are, a Millennial has hacked your technology and upturned the habits you had acquired over the past decade, if not eliminated jobs and whole industries.
Taking a taxi these days is a soulful experience, as drivers mull over their fate and the state of business in America today. This wistfulness, fear and sometimes outright anger is undoubtedly fueling the campaigns of certain contemporary politicians who tap into the sense of anger about the past and uncertainty about the future.
I wish I could say something reassuring to those people who have been left behind by the hacker culture, but I think the phenomenon will only become more pronounced as technology seeks to make us more efficient. The systems with which we interact on a daily basis will be hacked until they work the way users want them to work. Inefficiencies will be cut out of the equation and processes will be streamlined, regardless of the human toll.
So, what does this have to do with driverless cars, you ask? Well, I live in Los Angeles and I can tell you, beyond any doubt, that our daily traffic grid is a grossly inefficient system. When I first heard about Google's Self-Driving Car Project, I had a vision of thousands of small, identical cars running in a synchronized stream of traffic along the 101 freeway. These little vehicles will pick us up at our doorsteps and join others in an unending flow of modular units that hurry on to their unique destinations. They could even fit together and form a sort of alternative "public" transportation.
In this idealized version of the future in my mind, there will be few accidents, little congestion, less pollution and no need to own our vehicles. While I love my Dodge Charger, it's a dinosaur; a relic of a bygone era. Our children and grandchildren will one day look back in wonder and ask us if we were really allowed to drive a two-ton metal machine at great speed at will during "rush" hour. They will probably think we were crazy and it will be hard for us to disagree.
Personally, I can't wait for a future when I will trade my self-perceived individuality and impeccable taste in automobiles for a hassle-free, efficient travel experience. I would gladly swap my gas-guzzler for the convenience of being transported by a relatively intelligent computer system. I would even trade my Back-to-the-Future hoverboard for the convenience of a small, unsexy Google car. If the world's population continues to increase at its current pace and we all wish to live in comfort, we need to hack away at the existing infrastructure and find new, smarter ways of going about our business. It's not a matter of "if," but "when."
This post was featured on LinkedIn's Pulse: Automotive, Big Ideas & Innovation, and Technology sections on May 9, 2016.