Back in March, a driver drove into a crowd in San Francisco, hitting 5 people and killing one. I was absolutely sick reading about it, and frustrated, and saw those same feelings emerging in reactions online. One of them stood out to me, from Wired’s Kevin Kelly:
While I recognized his point and the place from which it came, the tone struck me as a slightly backwards way of thinking about it. In my role within Ford’s Greenfield Labs I think about these issues a lot, but our focus on human-centered design means I try to keep the human at the center of the equation. Which is why I offered Kevin a build:
To which he replied:
To me, this represented a small but critically important tweak to the logic reacting from pain and loss caused by this incident, which is one of nearly 6,000 that happened in 2017. This is undeniably a health and safety epidemic that demands thoughtful and urgent action. And there is also no question that a human was at fault: the car did not decide to run a light. The car did not decide to jump a curb. This is why we no longer call these events “accidents”. Someone is almost always at fault.
And yet…to solve for this epidemic by removing the ability for anyone to drive seemed wrongheaded to me, or at least not looking at the issue as humanely as possible. Yes, humans behind the wheel cause great pain and destruction, every day. But many, many more do not — they drive to and from work or the grocery store or on a family vacation or on a twisting mountain back road without incident. And many (though maybe not the majority) actually enjoy doing so. Despite what the AV future portends, there are still many humans who love the act and art of driving (Alex Roy, provocateur that he is, has made a fine point about this with his Human Driving Association).
So: Instead of thinking about how technology might remove the troublesome human driver from the equation, why not instead seek to create a vehicle that cannot, no matter what input its driver gives it, hit a human? Or Hell, any living thing? What if the vehicle couldn’t ever drive off the edge of a coastal highway, or a bridge, or into oncoming traffic? Imagine Asimov’s 3 Laws of robotics applied to our cars and trucks¹:
- A car may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A car must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A car must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Might there be a vision for a future that makes room for both those who’d rather not drive and those who want to do so, but without the risk to themselves and others? Can our collective imaginations acknowledge and embrace that passion?
I believe so, at least in this transitional generation we find ourselves in. I believe that technology is at its best when it allows us to experience life to the fullest while keeping us from causing unintentional and irreparable harm to others (or ourselves). I believe that there is a beauty in navigating a winding section of Route 1 in a manually-shifted convertible without a guardrail spoiling the view because your car simply won’t let you drive off the cliff.
If we can deliver on this vision of a driver-centric car that is “crash-proof”, it might also spawn a diversity of new vehicle forms to rival the early days of automated mobility, something that my comrade Jonah Houston outlined in a different post. Much of the weight and bloat of today’s vehicle design comes from protecting components and passengers from impact. Imagine no need for airbags, or crash zones, or high belt lines, or even side mirrors! It could create a Cambrian Explosion in auto expressionism.
The best part of working on the future every day is knowing that despite the current prognostications, no single vision will dominate; that the future of mobility will be as diverse as the present, hopefully more so. If we learn to harness the potentiality of the technology and shape it through the lens of human need and human desire and human will, we will arrive at that world with a solution for everyone.
*This probably goes without saying, but these views are my own and may or may not align with Ford or Greenfield Labs on this point. One of the beautiful things about where I work is that it is made up of thoughtful, intelligent, passionate people with a multitude of opinions and perspectives, all moving toward a more human future. I’m only sharing my thin sliver of the spectrum.
¹ I am aware of the Trolley Problem and the interesting work that MIT has been doing around how a machine chooses which life to take and which life to save. It is never going to be perfect, though this will be true whether there’s a human at the wheel or not.