Driverless Cars – They’re the New Norm in the US

My latest novel, Now You Are Lisa, is currently available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

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Having just returned from a trip to the US my overriding observation of the journey is that driverless cars can’t come soon enough. From what I saw the cars are driverless now. They’re just not supposed to be.

The reason, of course, is that nearly every driver is either texting, talking on the phone, or surfing the Internet. Hands-free use of your smart phone, which my car was equipped with, helps, but is not a cure. It’s not about your hands; it’s about your head. Hands-free or not, communication in any form is a distraction.

Until this trip I thought that China was the capital of freeway anarchy. While there are just as many rules of the road here as in the US nobody pays any attention to them. And as long as you are aren’t jeopardizing social order the police don’t seem to care too much.

It's tough to text with your mother and daughter riding on your scooter. But is that all bad? At least you have to pay attention.
It’s tough to text with your mother and daughter riding on your scooter. But is that all bad? At least you have to pay attention.

China no longer has anything on the US in terms of roadway anarchy, however. The only difference is that in the former they don’t care; in the latter they just aren’t paying attention.

Frankly, I was shocked at how quickly technology has been applied on every front to life in the US. I can order directly off a tablet at Panera and avoid the line. (And Panera can avoid having to pay someone to take my order.) And I’ve always believed that electronic toll payment, like the electric garage door opener, is the perfect application for technology.

In some ways, however, the technology is getting just a little too smart. If I look up the address of a store or restaurant I am only going to see ads from that store or restaurant from then on. That kind of ‘smart surfing’ isn’t exactly expanding our horizons. Frankly, I find it more annoying than helpful.

And I still maintain that some applications just don’t lend themselves to technology. We’re just allowing the provider of the product or service in question to push their costs onto us with no offsetting benefit in terms of ease or speed of service. Even doing some task in my pajamas is of no real value if it takes all day.

The dividing line between a good application and a bad application is the complexity of the task. When I pull up to the gas pump, for example, I essentially have three choices and I can generally get through the process.

On the other hand, when I went to apply for a visa for my Chinese wife, I am certain that if I could have actually spoken with an individual human being I could have completed the process in a fraction of the time. (They don’t provide telephone numbers any more for a reason. They know you’ll call and there’s no one there if you do.)

Just think of how many variables there are among the global population of people who might want to visit the US. Just the reasons for wanting to visit alone easily number in the dozens – and you can still never quite find the exact one.

To automate the process, of course, you have to accommodate virtually every possible variable. That means any given applicant must fill out page after page of questions that either don’t apply or are essentially unnecessary. In the end, what should take a few minutes ends up taking much longer because the process has taken on a life of its own – all in the name of automation – which is supposed to be a good thing.

There are some complicated processes that are made easier by technology. When I closed on a new condo, for example, it was all done electronically and there were pages and pages of documents. The key there is that neither the title company nor the bank is going to change anything anyway. It’s like a software license. You either sign it or you don’t. It’s a digital process despite the appearance of great complexity.

My new car came with a lot of technology. And the GPS is helpful, but not always. I can’t get mine to shut up and I still don’t know what destination it thinks I’m looking for. And I suppose an electronic parking break has some advantage over a mechanical one although I can’t imagine what that is, particularly since there are few occasions when a parking break is actually needed and a block of wood under the tire always worked fine for my father.

What I do know is that cars are a lot more expensive than they used to be. I actually saw an ad for a pickup truck that lists for $60,000. I bought an extended cab, full bed, pickup not that long ago for $15,000.

To be clear, I am not against technology. I am, however, quite fearful of how little people have really thought through all of the implications, particularly in the area of artificial intelligence. I fear we’re playing with fire because we don’t see it as fire. It all seems rather benign. (And the source of great riches.)

Unfortunately, you can’t put your toe in the water on this one. We’re doing that now with all of this texting business. We’ve either got to remove the smart phones or the drivers – one or the other.

If we don’t we’re going to ‘smart’ our way into oblivion.

Contact: Please write the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com