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Seeking Higher Ground: Rage at the (driverless) machine

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Although I’m seriously opposed to armed insurrection, I empathize with the folks who have assaulted driverless cars in Arizona.

In Glendale, there have been least 21 attacks: by assailants wielding guns, slashing tires, throwing rocks and even threatening a driverless van’s attendant with a chunk of PVC pipe. It’s also happening in California. Individuals there have battered Google driverless cars, while gangs have also thrown rocks at the Google bus — the one that takes tech workers from San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley.

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I’m pretty tech savvy. For years, I lived in San Francisco and worked in Silicon Valley, doing marketing for a computer-aided design company. I generally understand how software works, and a couple years ago, I visited an exhibition on robotics at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. There, I learned how the software that pilots a driverless car works; it superimposes a 360-degree scan of radar and lidar sensors onto a detailed road map.

Unfortunately, most digital mapping software creates a 2-D rather than a 3-D representation, one that doesn’t understand topography, seasons or weather. That’s why truckers, prompted by Google and Garmin, have repeatedly made futile attempts to use Independence Pass when Glenwood Canyon has been closed!

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My brother Warren, a physicist who works at Silicon Valley’s Xerox PARC research facility, has told me that driverless cars promise huge fuel savings. When grouped into convoys and controlled by computer, cars on freeways can draft one another like bike racers or geese. The result? Better per-person fuel efficiency than bus, rail or air travel offers.

What’s more, computers generally drive better than humans. Software doesn’t get tired, angry, impatient or drunk. It slavishly follows the rules of the road, while humans don’t. Companies experimenting with driverless cars have found that most accidents have been caused by the erratic behavior of humans, specifically humans outside their cars; other drivers following too close, making sudden turns or driving too fast; pedestrians unexpectedly jumping off the sidewalk or attacking their vehicles.

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Arizona police cited Eric O’Polka for repeatedly using his Jeep to force driverless vans off the road. His reason: a self-driving vehicle nearly ran over O’Polka’s 10-year-old son in a cul-de-sac near his home.

A year ago in January, a San Francisco pedestrian attacked a self-driving Chevy Cruise, shouting and body-slamming the car’s rear bumper and hatch. Perhaps the Cruise has become a target, cruisin’ for a bruisin’? General Motors, owner of the Cruise robot-car startup, has filed 22 state-required accident reports on its driverless cars, the most of any company. All 22 reports concern the Cruise.

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Aside from safety and efficiency, the big promise of automation was that it would enable people to work less, giving them more time to enjoy life. That wasn’t what I saw a decade ago in San Francisco. My tech friends were working 70- and 80-hour weeks and had little time for spouses, kids, concerts or even sleep. Meanwhile, my non-tech friends were being priced out of housing.

It’s worse now. Hundreds of teachers, postal clerks and service workers now live out of their cars in Silicon Valley. Their paychecks simply don’t sync with the area’s tech economy.

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Of course, the reason that Lyft and Uber are so tenaciously testing autonomous cars is that they want to eliminate their biggest expense — paying drivers. Douglass Rushkoff, author of the 2016 book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” has said that companies like Lyft and Uber personify what has gone wrong with the digital economy. Their drivers are barely subsisting, while the owners grow obscenely wealthy.

While Silicon Valley provides an extreme example, it’s not an outlier. A 2017 study found that a minimum-wage job would enable a worker to rent a one-bedroom apartment in just 12 counties — not 12 counties in Colorado, but 12 counties in the entire United States! The problem is worse in tech centers like Denver, but growing everywhere. The mismatch between housing costs and pay is a major reason young people can’t stay here in Carbondale.

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All this leaves me with conflicted feelings about automation: I would be happy to read while a Roomba cleaned my floor, but I avoid City Market’s self-serve checkout lanes. When I’m in a hurry and try to use them, there’s usually some time-consuming snafu. Plus, I really like the Dales and the cheery “Hello, milady,” I get from Delma when she rings up my groceries. Those folks are my neighbors, and I want them to have jobs.

All in all, I’m left raging at “the machine”— the driverless vehicle our economy has become. It seems uber-heartless, in need of human intervention before it reduces wide swaths of the population to financial roadkill.

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Nicolette Toussaint is a current Sopris Sun board member. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.