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Why We Should All Be Scared of Robot Cars

You may have seen the blog post “Dodge Shouldn’t Be Scared of Robot Cars” over at IEEE Spectrum (if you haven’t, go check it out).  Recently Dodge has been putting out advertisements that suggest technological innovation isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to giving up control of your car.  They depict the future of robot cars as humanoid robot drivers – which is just plain silly, and not at all likely.  They even show an automatic door (as if we don’t already have them today), which disgusts the ad’s protagonist.  The ad ends with the nonsensical statement, “Robots can take our food, our clothes, and our homes, but they will never take our cars.”


What the ad doesn’t say, of course, is how many people get killed in automobile accidents every year.  In the United States alone, between 30,000 and 40,000 people are killed in fatal accidents every year.  That’s like repeating the terrorist attacks of September 11th ten times a year, every year.  Yet for some reason the United States spends exponentially more on its military escapades than it does on the research & development of safer automobiles.  Adding sensors, intelligence, and communication to our vehicles will not only help you parallel park, but will dramatically reduce the number of crashes (fatal or not) as well.

Besides the obvious benefits, like having your car drive itself (allowing you to do whatever you please on the way), there’s also a dark side to automating personal travel.

The film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report gives us one science-fiction example that could become science-fact: cars controlled by a police state.  A universal robotic transportation system could potentially track the location and movements of every vehicle on the road.  Imagine being unfairly added to a “no-drive” list, where every time you enter a car it refuses to start (or worse, takes you directly to the authorities).  You could be automatically prevented from driving across state lines or even specific city districts.  Such a system would be implemented under the guise of improved safety and efficiency, but would become a powerful tool in the hands of a totalitarian government wanting to track and control the movements of its people.

Even if such a system was handled by the private sector, we already know that businesses like the major telecoms are willing to work with the government on its warrantless wiretapping activities.  And more recently, Apple and Google have come under fire for secretly tracking the movements of cellphones via GPS, cellphone transmission towers, and wi-fi hotspots and logging that information for up to a year, so it really isn’t farfetched to think personal privacy and the right to revolution will be diminished with the advent of robotic cars.

Mark Rotenburg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center notes,”A lot of people who talk about privacy on the internet and new technologies tend to draw a pretty sharp line between the activities of government and the activities of the private sector, and they simply assume that what the private sector does doesn’t have much of an impact on government surveillance. But I think what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is almost the exact opposite. In other words, the private sector, through the design of these devices, can do much of government’s surveillance work for it. It would have been impossible, for example, I think, for the government to build the kinds of databases that are being built today in the private sector on locational data. And of course, once those databases are built, you know, then you have a subpoena, you have a warrant, you have a national security letter maybe. But there are various techniques that the government uses to get access to that data, which is part of the reason that we actually feel so strongly that these companies really need to minimize the collection of this personal data. They simply should be keeping less information about how people are using these new devices.”

It seems to me that sometimes people are far too optimistic about new technology without considering the potential pitfalls that come with it.  We need to recognize and plan for all potential uses to ensure that powerful and life-changing technologies like robotic cars aren’t abused, and part of that is discussing the issues.  For more on robotic cars, see Sebastian Thrun’s lecture (bottom of the page) given at the celebration of 25 years of field robotics.

via [IEEE Spectrum]

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  • If we had cities that were actually designed to be reasonably livable we would not be so hamstrung by cars.

  • alex

    now what’s more fail, this or the corollamiku commercial

  • This is clearly a cost-benefit scenario. On one hand, you have increased efficiency, cost savings, safer vehicles, and more sustainable cities. On the other hand, you have the potential for misuse in the guise of benevolence. This isn’t a new issue. In fact, it’s already commonplace for automobiles — many (fleet) vehicles already have a “black box” that tracks location, and many people blindly follow GPS directions like good little “meat robots”.

    Personally, I _hate_ so many things about the current status quo: unproductive time spent driving, driving inefficiency (drivers’ poor habits), and the sheer waste associated with owning and maintaining one’s own vehicle. What happens when there are fleets of autonomous taxis (eg. zipcar) persistently available as a time-shared resource — does that change the equation? Perhaps anonymity can be reestablished, congestion all but eliminated, and petroleum consumption reduced… Frankly, we owe it to ourselves and our progeny.

    I think people are well aware of the pitfalls. The best way to shape the future is to help build it.