It is easy to romanticize autonomous vehicles. They will give us more time, grant access to transportation for those who were previously unable to drive themselves, and eliminate traffic jams and other inefficiencies that plague the current automotive experience. There are risks involved with all new technology though, and the general public is certainly not sold on the idea of a robot taking the wheel. In fact, studies have found that up to 74% of American’s don’t trust autonomous cars to operate without malfunction or to be safe from hacking. The questions raised about autonomous vehicles tend to focus on software slip-ups or issues related to integrating these new vehicles into a transportation system that was built around the traditional car. What about more abstract drawbacks though? As cars becomes more autonomous, do we sacrifice some of our own autonomy in return?
Cars are an integral aspect to the American cultural definition of freedom. Our media is flooded with imagery and stories that link the ability to travel at one’s own will with a conception of freedom and autonomy.
For most people in this country, turning sixteen, when one can get a driver’s license, is a more significant milestone than turning eighteen and legally becoming an adult. This is because the ability to travel on one’s own accord has more of a direct impact on most American’s day-to-day lives than the ability to vote or join the military. For today’s youth, the advent of services like Uber and Lyft may dull down the importance of finally gaining the ability to drive oneself, but there is no denying that self-sufficiency in transportation is a massive step in one’s maturation. So where do autonomous cars fit into this? If anything, the age at which Americans can travel on their own accord will decrease, meaning more freedom for younger people. The equation of more mobility for more people should equal more freedom. But do autonomous vehicles really make us more free?
One way to define freedom is privacy. As autonomous car technology advances, the privacy that we have in our cars will quickly diminish. A commonality among the early versions of automotive autonomy that are already on the road today like Tesla’s Autopilot or Volvo’s Pilot Assist is that they relentlessly monitor the drivers. Many researchers involved in autonomous driving, such as MIT’s Age Lab, acquire swaths of driver-data from eye tracking to pedal input on how people act when they drive. This is a particularly poignant issue in the intermediary stage when autonomous technology is on the rise but not unanimous to all cars on the road. A ways down the line, when people have no input in the operation of the vehicle, there will not be a need to monitor the driver. In the current stage, though, where the driver can be more hands off while still retaining ultimate responsibility of the car, keeping an eye on them is crucial to ensure smooth operation. “We are making tremendous progress in instrumenting vehicles to know everything that’s happening around them, but there are just not enough sensors looking at the driver inside the car,” says Anuj Pradhan, who studies human factors at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. As Pradhan suggests, we are soon going to see a lot more driver monitoring in cars.
Mercedes has already unveiled a plan to create a personal profile on its customers that incorporates everything from your appointments and meetings to your heartbeat.
Their justification for this technology is that it helps their customers with well-being and vitality, claiming that the company can ease day to day stress. The biometric integration Mercedes is working on is not related to autonomous driving, but goes to show how closely our cars are starting to watch us. At what point do we take a minute to ask ourselves what a car is and should be, and what are the potential consequences of taking a vehicle and turning it into so much more?
There are some troubling implications to all this tracking and monitoring. Starting with what we do know, every GPS-enabled car can be tracked at all times by the manufacturer. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Ford Global Vice President of Marketing Jim Farley noted, “We know everyone who breaks the law (he’s referring to speeding), we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.” The fact that automotive companies can and do track our every movement should be obvious given that they design in many ways control the cars we drive, but it is somewhat troubling nonetheless. In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court ruled that the FBI’s unwarranted placement of a tracker on an individual’s car is illegal. This means that in terms of our privacy as Americans, it should in theory be illegal for the government to exploit the technology in our cars to surveil us. The law gets hazy when it comes to this sort of activity though. Edward Snowden’s uncovering of NSA surveillance and the secret monitoring that was outlined in the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks show that our expectation of privacy is not always as strong as we would like to think. In these cases, the government utilized personal electronics like cell phones and laptops to gather data on people. As more and more driver monitoring equipment is inserted into our cars, including those that can monitor our bodily functions, who is to say that the information gathered by these instruments is always in the right hands. This also begs the question of whether this information should even be gathered at all.
While this may all seem hypothetical and a bit paranoid, there are real world examples of this type of exploitation of technology in cars already happening. In the Xinjiang Province of China, a semi-autonomous and quite volatile region, the government has required that all drivers install a specific satellite navigation system into their cars that enables the government to track all cars in the province. In Xinjiang, there are frequent instances of violence due to extreme ethnic tensions, and the Chinese government has justified this unprecedented form of surveillance by claiming it will help them stop future incidents. China has a long history of keeping a tight grip on regions that are struggling for their autonomy, like Tibet and Taiwan, in ways that the rest of the world finds questionable. The exploitation going in in Xinjiang shows that even something as seemingly innocent as GPS can have negative ramifications in terms of personal freedom. As cars become even more connected and automated, we will hand over even the most basic functions of our transportation to a third party, and it may be hard to tell exactly who that is. Is there a point where we must decide to forego a technological advancement to save our privacy? Perhaps autonomous vehicles will be where we have to draw that line.