Think of self-driving cars as airplanes with wheels

Seth Godin: “The challenge of the self-driving car isn’t that it’s a car with no driver. Actually, the self-driving car is an airplane with wheels. Magical technology.”

It’s not that we’re difficult little beings. It’s that we’re irrational control freaks.

We don’t even need to study this anymore, we know driving is far more dangerous than flying. Yet very few people are scared of getting in a car to go somewhere. Whereas white-knuckle flyers are on every flight. Why? Because when you’re flying, you’re not doing anything except hoping, and that’s more terrifying than a bookload of stats.

Which is why I hate it when people wish me a safe flight. “I’ll do my best,” I always reply. “From my seat back in steerage I’ll beam safety thoughts or something, that’s a good idea.” I know people mean well. It’s thinking they don’t do right.

Not being able to control anything scares us. And that’s a perfectly natural human reaction. But that doesn’t make it rational or smart.

Personally, I am looking forward to driverless cars, especially in busy traffic. The thought of moving along smoothly (if not very fast because of volume) instead of this crazy-making stop-and-go thing we do now seems like heaven.

Once, in a conversation with a City of Ottawa transportation official, I commented that we should think of it like a Disney monorail. (Yes, she laughed, too.) But! How many people you figure take that monorail between Magic Kingdom and Epcot every day? Roughly 48247 gazillion. How long do we wait at red lights once we’re on it? Exactly. How long do we have to wait to board the thing? Same. Sure, the ride is slow. But who cares? It’s pleasant and we get there in time, stress-free.

Imagine: If you knew the automated car would get you from home to work reliably in 28 minutes regardless of conditions, even if it could be done in 22 in light traffic, you’d arrange your mornings around that 28 minutes and would remove a lot of stress from your day. As things stand, you never know how long you’ll be stuck behind the wheel of your not-moving-much vehicle from one day to the next because it depends on everything from weather to other people’s schedule and their ever-changing lack of driving skills. Your light-traffic 22 minutes can stretch to three quarters of an hour through no fault of your own, and that, I insist, is what causes us commuting-related stress.

Disney, I told the City’s transportation official, has mastered the art of moving huge numbers of people from one place to the next using technology, data, and an admirable willingness to try new things. I know they don’t tend to share their secrets much. But maybe if we study how they do things, and keep an open mind, we’ll stand a decent chance to transition smoothly from gridlock to happy if slowish transit via driverless cars.

Perhaps you do not like the idea of going to work in a pod driven by a computer like a perfect automaton at the mercy of a an i7 chip or, worse, like a tourist on a theme-park monorail. Perhaps the idea makes you feel even more like a cog in a giant machine than you care for. I suggest to you that the problem is not the car technology. The problem is the kind of life we’ve built where we define ourselves by the kind of job we have and why we insist on having that job be so far from where we live or vice-versa, but usually people aren’t too keen to discuss that so they get stuck on details like traffic patterns instead.

Which is too bad if you ask me, because people with science degrees and clipboards have studied the issue and seem pretty convinced that getting stuck in traffic on the way to a job that doesn’t make us especially happy far away from where we live is a terrible way for human beings to spend their lives. I especially like this bit, from a New York Times news story: “Another toll is to psychological well-being, stemming from the sense of helplessness we experience in traffic, and its unpredictability. This, too, can be quantified. One study found that to save a minute of time spent in traffic, people would trade away five minutes of any other leisure activity. Another study found that we deal better with the commuting delays that we can anticipate.”

It’s almost like I wrote the thing myself, isn’t it. Like I say, we’re little control freaks who aren’t particularly rational. Who but a desperate man would trade five minutes of fun against one minute of traffic?

When we think we’re in charge, we feel better. When you’re late for work because 10 cm of snow fell overnight, you’re not nearly as stressed as when you’re two minutes late to your daughter’s gymnastics class because the lights were unexpectedly out at Carling and Bronson and you got stuck there furious that people can’t manage four-way stops like grown-ups. That’s why we’re scared of automated transport — or even, to some extent, transit. Because we’re not in charge of anything except what podcast we listen to, and we hate that.

Technology is not the answer to everything. But it’s also not the enemy. It won’t do to resist change just because we’re scared of not being in control. Instead we should remind ourselves that even when we’re all driving our own cars, we’re not much in control of traffic anyway.

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