Autonomous vehicles are about to collide with the American way
At some point in the future, be it years, decades, or a century hence, the federal government will seek to ban driving.
This, I’m afraid, is an inevitability. It is inexorably heading our way. The dot sits now on the horizon. As is common, the measure will be sold in the name of public health. “Now that robots can do the work,” its bloodless advocates will explain, “there’s no need for human involvement.” And from then: On, the snowball will roll.
Each time there’s a bad accident, the utilitarians will squeal: about the stupidity of the American people; about the enormity of theretofore innocuous groups — “F*** AAA!”; about the antediluvian “fetish” that is costing American lives. “In Sweden,” they will gripe, “they already . . .” Besides, we regulate trains and airplanes. Why can’t we outlaw the driver’s license?
Our debate will rest largely upon charts. The American Medical Association will find “no compelling reason to permit the citizenry to drive,” and Vox will quote it daily. Concurring in this assessment will be The New England Journal of Medicine, the Center for American Progress, and the newly rechristened Mothers against Dangerous Driving, for which outfits “dangerous” will have become a lazily supplied synonym for “human.” Atop this endless statistical beat will be a steady stream of mawkish anecdotes. “Joey was just 17.” “Sarah had three kids.” “Not a day goes by in which . . .” And pushed into the corner, as “flacks” and “extremists” and the owners of bloodstained hands, will be the dissenters. “But what,” they will ask, “about liberty?”
As usual, the opponents of prohibition will be correct. Indeed, the threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend. For a century, the automobile has been a bastion of liberty, freeing up almost everybody from the tyranny of other people’s schedules. Trains, planes, and even taxis are run to their owners’ clocks: I cannot tell Amtrak to pick me up at 9; Delta won’t stop in Fayetteville if I ask nicely; yellow taxis have a habit of disappearing in the rain. But the car — oh, the car. The car is mine. I can get in my car when I want, and get out when I want. I can oversleep or undersleep, and still it sits there waiting, as might a Labrador or a loyal slipper. My car has no luggage restrictions, and I know exactly what it’ll fit. In my car, I may play what I want on the radio. And, best of all, I may choose the other passengers.
Crucially, I need no special permission to drive my car — at least not beyond a basic license and a plate screwed into the back. At my choosing, I can go around the block, or I can go to California. Nobody cares. There are no tickets, no inspectors, no medallions to subsidize. If I want, I can use a satellite or a map to help me find my way, or recruit my smartphone to the cause of cutting traffic. But I don’t have to. In fact, I don’t have to have a clue where I’m going, or a clue when I’ll get there, or to remember where I’ve been. I can get happily, gloriously, deliriously lost — a weekender shuffling toward nowhere. My car, God bless it, has no logbook, and no timetable. It is a steel extension of my feet.
Will it remain these things if I am no longer allowed to drive it? The answer, of course, is “No.” For starters, I would likely not own one in such circumstances. Why would I, when it would sit unused for most of the time without any of the benefits that currently attend? Where would be the advantage in my having one, as opposed to calling an Uber or a taxi or a Lyft? To be reliant upon a computer in the sky is to be reliant upon someone else. After a while, only the rich would justify the luxury.
Regardless, everyone will suffer from the catastrophic loss of privacy. Any network of self-driving cars would, by definition, necessitate total and unceasing tracking of their occupants. I may know how to get to the local liquor store without a map, but my car most certainly does not. To make it there in a driverless model, I’d first have to tell it where I was going, and then it would have to ask the Internet, and the satellites, and, probably, my credit card. To the existing framework we would thus be adding a planet-wrapping exoskeleton with a perfect digital memory. The car, far from serving as a liberator, would become a telescreen on wheels — an FBI-approved bug, to be slipped beneath the chassis in plain sight of the surveilled. At a stroke, my autonomy would be gone. Without permission from the Web, I would be lost in space. A mere server glitch could render me immobile. The government, should it so choose, could stop me dead in my tracks. Yet again, I would be handing over my self-reliance to the government and to the corporations, and asking, plaintively, “Please sir, may I move?”
I refuse. The poet Richard Brautigan longed for “a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.” I refuse to be so co-opted, or to be forced under the peering eyes of a machine, however “loving” or “graceful” its acolytes might believe it to be. Indeed, I do more than refuse: I propose a legal prophylactic against this nightmare, to be adopted now, before it can come to fruition. As soon as possible, it must be illegal for the state to take steps in this direction. We must amend the Constitution to ensure as much.
The Constitution of the United States is not there to ossify much-disputed social rules, or to settle more permanently what is better resolved in statute. That, inter alia, was the grand lesson of the failure of Prohibition. But this, I’d venture, does not fall into either category. This is more fundamental. The genius of the Bill of Rights lies in its protection of broad categories of human conduct, and, by extension, whatever tools are necessary for their exercise. By design, there is no reference to Twitter or to typewriters or to churches in the First Amendment, no mention of muskets or AR-15s in the Second, nor to filing cabinets or hard disks in the Fourth. Those are the mere details — the flesh on the bone. What matters in each case is the act in question: speech, dissent, and conscience in the First; self-defense in the Second; privacy in the Fourth, and so on.
So it is here. In truth, the coming debate over driving is not really about driving at all, but about movement, autonomy, and reliance upon one’s self. Which is to say that the root question is whether free people are to be permitted to move themselves around without needing somebody else to agree to the transaction, or whether the government may interpose itself. This, naturally, is a perennial inquiry, not a contingent one. It would have been as pertinent in 1790 if there had been an anti-horse movement, and it will be necessary when the car has been replaced with the jetpack, or the rotocopter, or whatever is coming our way. May I move myself, or may I not?
There is no Ludditism embedded in this instinct, nor is there any intolerance. Those who choose to abandon their licenses and surrender to Brautigan’s “cybernetic ecology” would absolutely be free to do so. Legal, too, would be cars capable of being driven and of driving themselves. The amendment would merely protect the rights of those who will inevitably dissent from the Borg. “Congress shall make no law,” it might read, “restricting adults from driving licensed vehicles.”
Such a modification would have no bearing on the “shall issue” licensing regime that currently obtains in all 50 of our states, nor would it impugn the safety regulations that attach to self-driven automobiles. It is reasonable to test competency before permitting drivers on the public roads, and it is fair for the state to ensure that wheels are wheels and engines are reliable and airbags work upon request. Rather, the amendment would merely prevent the in toto prohibition that is inevitably going to be floated. It is not the role of government to force a free people into a dependency that they had happily escaped, or to radically alter their capacity for rapid movement in a culture that everywhere presupposes it. The designer Raymond Loewy recorded that “the American automobile has changed the habits of every member of modern society.” So it has — and vastly for the better. Uncle Sam, and SkyNet, must back the hell away.