Op-Ed Contributor: Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?

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Yes, jobs will be created by these new cars, but many will be lost. Millions of truck and taxi drivers will be out of work, and owing to the rise of car-sharing and app-based car services, people may buy fewer vehicles, meaning automakers and their suppliers could be forced to shed jobs.

Then there’s infrastructure. Huge investments in new infrastructure are a given, but huge investments in old infrastructure will also still be needed. Many of these new-generation cars require smooth roads, with clearly painted lines, to safely position themselves. Potholes, worn paint and other irregularities — standard fare on too many of today’s roads — will potentially become even greater safety hazards than they are now. Where will the resources to maintain and repair roads and bridges, an effort already underfunded by more than a trillion dollars, come from?

And have we thought about security? Today’s cars can be hacked easily. New protocols must be agreed on, and even then, nefarious actors will learn how to remotely start and stop cars, steer them, steal them, crash them or even take them hostage. Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, attempted to address security issues at the hearings last spring — proposing rules governing consumer privacy and antihacking requirements — but the invited companies balked at regulation. For those of a dystopian bent, imagine the day when the local constable locks your doors and instructs your car to drive you to the station for questioning.

And what about the interim period when conventional vehicles share the road with automated ones? One of the claims made for autonomous cars is that they can be lighter, shedding heavy metal crash cells and expensive safety gear, like airbags, saving fuel. That’s great until the old-school pickup with the old-fashioned drunken driver T-bones your Google car.

What’s more, are we ready to give up on mass transit? In a world where our elected officials can’t see fit to fund and fairly price much-needed public transportation, it’s hard to imagine these new automated-car expenses will free up money for trains and trams. And yet many cities are so crowded they don’t have room for more cars — even automated, electric cars congest.

We humans can’t seem to put our phones down, and industry leaders don’t want us to. The risk of distracted driving may be one of the strongest arguments for driverless cars. But distracted driving could be reduced simply by disabling phones in moving cars.

When it comes to the practical direction of technology, the government too often defers to industry. Shouldn’t society have a say in what amounts to a public works project larger than the Interstate System of highways — run by and for private industry, but underwritten by taxpayers? Congress needs to articulate their goals and answer this burning question: Are driverless cars really what we need?

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