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How did ‘driverless’ cars become ‘self-driving’ cars, and should we be worried?

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A futurist named Brad Templeton got mad at me some months ago. We don’t say “driverless cars” anymore, he told me with a hint of scolding in his voice. We say “self-driving” cars.

OK, I thought. I didn’t know the computer-navigated cars had feelings. But as much as the moment felt like a weird discussion of political correctness on behalf of sensors and data-crunching algorithms, it also made some sense to me. After all, it is true that the cars are being driven. Just not by humans. So, fair enough, I thought, and made the switch. Ever since then I’ve called them by the preferred nomenclature. 

But now that Google has released a new self-driving car prototype, I’m thinking more about it. While self-driving maybe more accurate than driverless, there’s a lot more that comes with that, right? Driverless suggests unhinged. Nobody at the helm. A carriage out of control. But self-driving suggests independent, efficient–even magical. A self-driving car is something we want, because it does the work for us. 

Could it be then, that this is really about marketing? The new self-driving prototype we got to see this week has some interesting changes from past vehicles: no brake pedals and no steering wheel. It doesn’t look like a car really, either. It’s more of a pod. Maybe it’s an owl. Whatever it is, it looks like its own thing, and that is also part of the plan. Because if you started seeing Priuses driving around without anyone in the driver’s seat, you might not feel so good about it. Like some of Google’s other recent inventions, this thing makes some of us a little nervous. If you’ve been keeping up with HBO’s show “Silicon Valley,” you might have caught the scene where the cowardly Jared gets screwed by a self-driving car’s malfunctioning computer.


It’s a really funny bit, in part because that feeling of helplessness hits so close to home. None of us want to be in the backseat, do we? This is America gosh darn it. Where we want the right to benefit from the endless permutations of human error. An even more cynical way of saying it, according to the unnamed futurist: We’d rather let drunk drivers kill people on the road than even entertain the thought of letting a computer do it at what is likely to be a far lower rate.

If you can’t tell already, I support the idea of self-driving cars. I think they’ll make our world more efficient, less polluting, and safer. But that doesn’t mean I will ignore the possibility that we’re being sold a product; that we’re being conditioned. Words and designs carry meaning, and these vehicles are no different. That meaning is born in motivations both virtuous and unnerving. If you think companies like Google aren’t thinking about how to deliver us video advertisements once we can all kick back and veg out during the road trip, you’re not being cynical enough. So I’ll do it–I’ll call them self-driving cars. But I’ll also leave you with another scene I’m reminded of while mulling all of this. It’s from the movie “Wall-E,” and it’s a fate I hope we avoid.


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