Politics & Policy

Don’t Fear the Self-Driving Car

A self-driving car being developed by nuTonomy (left) on the streets of Boston, Mass., June 2017. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Concerns that the technology will erode the freedom of self-reliant movement are real and must be addressed, but it promises very real, significant benefits, too.

Someday — not necessarily soon, but someday — agents of the state will seek to ban driving outright, warns National Review Online editor Charles C. W. Cooke. Be it in the name of safety or in the name of efficiency, the government stands ready, Cooke asserts, to strike at one of the core principles that empower us as a free people: self-reliant freedom of movement.

Faced with that threat, Cooke sees no choice for liberty lovers but to commit to a constitutional amendment that would preserve our access to vehicles as they exist today; vehicles that, in Cooke’s words, are “steel extensions” of our feet. Without a constitutionally guaranteed right to “drive licensed vehicles,” this argument goes, we are bound to live in a virtually enabled Panopticon.

But, Cooke’s claim to the contrary, giving today’s driven vehicles a specifically enumerated constitutional protection would simply express a preference for one mode of transportation over another. It would not in any way guarantee the principle of self-reliant freedom of movement.

To understand why, one need only think back to the time before the development and deployment of the “road engines” that we now know as automobiles. At the dawn of the 20th century, most Americans enjoyed a rural and largely agrarian lifestyle that prized quiet and the privacy afforded by long, hard-to-bridge distances. It is difficult to overstate the environmental disruption wrought by the arrival of those loud, dust-inducing, dangerous vehicles. The disruption to privacy was even more profound. The dinner-interrupting door-to-door salesman, to take just one example, was the sort of new annoyance previously unthinkable before the advent of mass-produced automobiles.

Naturally, conceptions of quiet and privacy were forced to evolve. The wealth and newfound liberties that Cooke celebrates and defends ultimately trumped the legitimate concerns of the time. Indeed, the massive markets for transported goods and people that we now regard as hallmarks of the American spirit simply did not exist before automotive technology — at least, not in anything like their current form. The open-road ethos that has defined every living generation of Americans is a 20th-century invention.

We should learn from this past as we look now to the uncertain future of American transportation. However easy it is to forecast a self-driving dystopia, it would be deeply unwise to dismiss the unknown and unknowable benefits of new automotive technologies. After all, with technological advancement can come new liberties, like the efficient freedom of movement we enjoy today as a result of human-driven cars.

After all, with technological advancement can come new liberties, like the efficient freedom of movement we enjoy today as a result of human-driven cars.

In the case of a highly automated technology like the self-driving car, we should absolutely expect to maintain our freedom to go “wherever whenever,” and, should we so choose, to own vehicles of our own (regardless of the economic wisdom of such a choice). But we stand to gain so much from this technology that it would be foolish to dismiss it from the start on the theory that it will inevitably erode our core freedoms. It promises not only the individual flourishing and growth that will flow naturally from greater operational efficiencies like “platooning,” coordinated traffic management, and remote fueling and storage, but also the re-engagement and meaningful re-emergence of tens of millions of Americans — such as the blind, the elderly, the infirm, and some minors — who aren’t able to operate vehicles as they exist today.

The use of previously untapped human capital made possible by self-driving cars will free Americans from burdens not unlike those that were lifted by the mass production of our “metal shoes” at the turn of the 20th century. Embracing this technology with a keen understanding of the ways in which it will impact traditional notions of privacy will be vital if it is to be deployed successfully.

But Cooke’s worry — government-enforced dependency on the state for mobility via an outright ban on driven vehicles — strikes me as exaggerated. Dependency does not hinge on whether or not a hand turns a wheel. What matters is that we retain the ability to move and act without permission. Highly autonomous automated vehicles will require adaptation, just as the first automobiles did. But there is no way to speak of our “dependency” that is meaningfully distinct from the relationships we have with our existing cars, phones, and other appliances.

What Cooke wants to preserve, beyond the undeniable romance of the open road, is the freedom granted by unencumbered movement. His concern about governments unacceptably circumscribing that freedom is well-placed, and a constitutional amendment protecting it would be welcome. But an amendment that merely cemented a role for driven vehicles, as he proposes, would quickly be rendered anachronistic. Instead, we should commit to a constitutional baseline of privacy that allows individuals to go where they please, without the government’s being able to use the data created by those trips against them.

That, rather than a largely symbolic recognition of automobiles as they have existed until now, is a cause worth fighting for.

READ MORE:

Autonomous Vehicles Will Spark Efforts to Ban Driving

Regulators Shouldn’t Overreact to the First Self-Driving Car Crash

Mandating Driverless Cars

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