Driverless Cars and the Cult of Technology

We constantly hear that driverless cars are just around the corner. We’re told they will revolutionize transportation and enable us to continue using our car-based transport and land-use system. If they’re made by Tesla, they’ll be powered by magic, solar-powered, super efficient batteries and we’ll all be able to keep living our hyper-mobile, hyper-consumptive lifestyles without any damage to the environment. The only problem is we’ve been hearing about all this for the last five to ten years and there’s no evidence that it’s anything but the same old technological, capitalist utopian dreck that we’ve been hearing since General Motors debuted “Futurama” at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Technological utopianism fueled by science fiction is nothing new. If you’ve never seen it, watch Disney’s short animated film “Magic Highway” from 1958. It’s remarkably similar to this recent promotional film for an Elon Musk tubular underground transportation system in Los Angeles. They’re both fantasies that maintain our inefficient, car-oriented transportation and land-use systems and help the Automobile Industrial Complex retain its stranglehold on our imaginations. They’re also fantasies that dovetail with corporate capitalism’s fantasy of automating the entire workforce and using technology to eliminate jobs and reduce costs.

In many ways, driverless cars have all the makings of a massive cult–the Cult of Technology. This is the idea that technology will somehow solve the problems of human greed, over-population and over-consumption of planetary resources, and therefore will also solve the related problems of climate change, waste, pollution, and species extinction. It’s an old fantasy but one we still buy into. It preys on our laziness and gullibility and it distracts and deludes us so much that we can’t see basic realities staring us in the face.

Witness all the absurdly hyped stories about driverless cars in the media. This NBC news story is typical, gushing that “Self-driving cars will turn intersections into high-speed ballet.” Their “evidence” for this is just an animated simulation video. They’ve even got city and state governments devoting staff time and resources to “Planning for our driverless future.” Non-profit “transit” advocacy groups like MoveMN have held seminars on it as if it’s an impending reality. Cheerleaders for driverless cars claim they will reduce traffic deaths, increase the efficiency and carrying capacity of roadways, reduce costs and revolutionize transportation.

Lots of money has poured into research and development of driverless vehicles–Waymo (Google), Volvo, Tesla, Mercedes, Uber and other companies have made and/or operated test vehicles and some sell commercially available cars with driverless features like parallel parking and glorified cruise control, or what they call “autopilot.” Even companies like Intel are making bets on chip technology for driverless cars. With all this money and hype, you’d think that driverless vehicles will be taking over our roads in the next ten or twenty years.

But many folks, including the owner of the driverless shuttle company EasyMile and scientists at MIT and other institutions who are actually working on the technology say widespread use or deployment of driverless vehicles is a long way off and may never happen at all:

“Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can ‘drive anywhere a car can legally drive.’ However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps. …Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning …that the car wouldn’t be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop. …The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. (Chris) Urmson (former director of the Google Car team) also says the car can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn’t coned off.

“There are major, unsolved, difficult issues here. We have to be careful that we don’t overhype how well it works. …I do not expect there to be taxis in Manhattan with no drivers in my lifetime.” (John Leonard, MIT Professor working on robotics navigation).

Uber’s autonomous test vehicles in Pittsburgh all have backup human operators and, in over 20,000 miles of operation, those operators have had to intervene every 0.8 miles. Then there are the crashes:

  • A fatal crash of a Tesla in autopilot mode in Heibei China in January 2016
  • A fatal crash of a Tesla in autopilot mode in Florida in May 2016
  • A pedestrian killed in Arizona by an Uber (Volvo) in December 2017
  • Another fatal crash of an auto-piloted Tesla on March 23 of this year in Mountain View, California
  • Teslas in semi-autonomous mode hitting parked fire trucks in January (Los Angeles) and May of this year (in Salt Lake City)
  • And, in California, the only state that requires reports on autonomous vehicle crashes, there’ve been 95 crashes as of August 31 of this year.

When you think about how few driverless cars are actually in service and that this is just one state’s statistics, that’s a lot of crashes. An early study in 2015, found self-driving cars were involved in twice as many crashes per mile as human-driven cars. You can say, “most of these were the fault of human drivers in other vehicles!” But part of the technological challenge of driverless cars is that they have to share the road with humans.

We debate the ethics of driverless cars taking away our jobs, or debate whether people will accept them, as if they are an inevitable reality. But this debate obscures the fact that the technology itself is insanely complicated and expensive and many decades if not a lifetime away from widespread usage. It’s one thing to make some test cars work consistently in ideal situations and another to get tens of thousands of them operating in concert with non-driverless cars, pedestrians, weather and all sorts of other variables.

A simple, fixed-guideway computerized transit system like Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), with just five lines and a maximum of 54 trains, on set schedules to set destinations, hasn’t been able to go fully driverless and, at its best, experiences failures of on-time performance of around 10%. Magnify this error rate by thousands for tens of thousands of autonomous cars driving in a metro area with pedestrians, cyclists, animals, potholes, unexpected road work and all sorts of other variables, and you start to get a sense of how complex the engineering problem becomes when you scale it up from just a few test vehicles. I can’t always get decent cell phone reception or a transit ticket vending machine that works correctly. Yet I’m supposed to believe techno-utopian cultists who tell me that, in twenty years, we’ll all be getting around in driverless cars? They sound like Disney’s “Magic Highway” or like they’ve been watching too many Star Wars movies.

Let’s look at some of the folks hyping this technology. No one is more prominent than Elon Musk–a guy whose companies, Tesla and SpaceX, have never been profitable. Yet at one point, Tesla was valued at more than major motor vehicle companies like Nissan or Ford, based entirely on hype and stock speculation. His Hyperloop company hasn’t built an actual system anywhere in the world and is more of a concept and test track than an actually viable transportation system. His battery and solar companies are also more hype than actual profitable product. His solar business amounts to his acquisition of the company “SolarCity” from which he laid off 20% of the workforce. This is a guy who wants to save humanity by colonizing Mars and who sent one of his cars to orbit Mars as a publicity stunt (but missed it). His net worth is the product of pure stock market speculation, largely based on his cult of personality. To this point, Tesla has mostly made luxury electric automobiles that resemble fancy wrist watches or smartphones–status objects for the wealthy. If his Model 3 isn’t successful, speculators could lose a lot of money, and Tesla recently had to lay off over 500 people and plans to lay off 2,500 more or about 9% of its workforce.

Indeed some financial analysts have finally started questioning his claims and the value of his companies. While some of his companies could be successful, they also have all the makings of a classic Ponzi scheme or failed start-ups on a massive scale. Musk companies like Hyperloop remind me of the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) scheme–a concept that hung around for almost 40 years before being abandoned or relegated to airport people-movers. This included Taxi 2000, a failed Minnesota company whose investors sued each other to try to recoup some of millions of dollars they foolishly invested. Indeed many PRT simulation videos resemble the ones linked to at the beginning of this post. Ironically, the PRT concept has died out in part because it has been eclipsed by the driverless car concept.

So when someone like Elon Musk makes wild claims about driverless cars, I’m skeptical. Google spun off its driverless car project (within Alphabet) to Waymo and is just focusing on development not manufacture. Uber has gotten out of the driverless truck business, perhaps because the backup driver intervention rate was as bad as for its cars (almost once per mile).

A driverless car is still a car. It still needs energy, at least some of it from petroleum, to be manufactured, moved and disposed of. Anywhere from 23-46% of the energy a car consumes in its lifetime is an inherent part of its manufacture and disposal. The steel, aluminum and plastics in its body and tires, the lithium (or lead/acid) in its batteries, and the asphalt and concrete for its roadways all require fossil fuels, mining, rare-earth metals, and/or huge amounts of energy to manufacture. Driverless cars fail to address any of this and they fail to fully address another core problem of automobiles–inefficient land use. Proponents claim that cities of driverless cars will reduce the need for parking and more efficiently use existing roadways but this is assuming the technology is able to decrease vehicle following distances, an even tougher engineering problem. It’s futile to argue with a fantasy but, even if driverless cars could become widespread, why would I want more technology when all I need is denser, car-free, walkable cities where jobs, goods and services are closer together? It’s a much surer, cheaper, less resource-intensive path to environmental sustainability.

Five years ago, several people bet me cases of beer that “in ten years at least 20% of cars on the road would be driverless.” I can tell you right now, there’s gonna be an amazing party in my back yard in 2022. You’re all invited.

Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer is doing his second tour as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored of four books including his latest, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at

24 thoughts on “Driverless Cars and the Cult of Technology

  1. Eric Ecklund

    In Burnsville’s comprehensive plan they mention autonomous vehicles, and what struck me was that they mentioned no longer needing traffic signals. As if 100% of vehicles will be autonomous and bikers/walkers will either have to stay on designated trails, try to cross busy roads, or have every intersection include a grade separated crossing.

    And now the Star Tribune comments on transit projects include transit being obsolete soon because we’ll have autonomous vehicles which means no more congestion.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Elon Musk does with the high speed underground shuttle project between the Chicago Loop and O’Hare, if it ever gets built.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    When was *brand new* back in 2012 I wrote about this a bunch. I was skeptical then, and remain so, especially that robot cars will be able to coexist in walkable cities with many different kinds of people on the streets, walking, biking, scooting, whatever. These camera cars might work in an arizona suburb with unpeople’d streets, but not in a city.

    The one hope that I cling to is that robot cars might tame the automobile, make speeding a thing of the past, have faster and/or predictable reactions to people crossing the street, or whatever. In such a scenario, I can imagine streets looking very different than they do today, people being able to walk safely, kids playing or moving around on streets without fear. But then I read a news story about a crash…

  3. Justin

    Logistically it’s unrealistic, so even if we went full speed ahead with it, eventually the driverless car future will be abandoned after a limited implementation and we’ll be left with a bunch of bad infrastructure. It sort of like the urban freeway craze in the middle of the 20th century, eventually building more and more urban freeways was pointless so they stopped doing it and we were left with a bunch of highways in places where they shouldn’t be.

  4. Cobo R

    Its difficult to have a conversation about driver less cars that balances the techno futurism with the pragmatic realities of what is actually feasible, but it is one of the few emerging technologies that is tangible for everyone, so its fun to talk about.

    I do think that the current safety and reliability issues could be solved fairly quickly. But that being said the perception of danger will take years to overcome. Kind of like with elevators, even after they were automated many buildings still hired operators to settle peoples nerves and make them feel safe.

    Things that are almost never brought up are automating semis, and the future for transportation for the elderly.

    For Semis, there is almost no question in my mind about them going driver less eventually, its going to happen especially for the non hazardous payloads. An electric semi with no driver. That would mean that the biggest expenses for the trucking company, fuel, labor, and maintenance would not be completely gone but they would greatly reduced. Also it removes the concern of too many hours behind the wheel and other human issues. The incentives for the trucking companies to make it work are too great for it to not eventually happen.

    Transportation for the elderly could be revolutionized, especially in rural areas where transit and human driven ride share can’t & don’t really exist. Right now I know a lot of old people who have essentially lost their ability to leave their house because its too dangerous for them to drive, and they will not, or can not move.

    Autonomous cars could change the economics of on demand travel in rural & semi rural areas, and make is possible for elderly to live more active and fulfilling lives.

    At least I hope there are self driving cars the before I get old.

  5. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I have less knowledge about the technical side, so I leave it to other folks. I think, to the layperson who has seen unbelievable technical advances in past decades, it seems logical that we can make leaps like the kind envisioned by AV boosters.

    I confess to being more interested in what you refer to as the “debate whether people will accept them.” I am wary of people, especially engineers, who take social science/economics problems (traffic congestion) and try to turn them into engineering problems (let’s widen the roadway!).

    I see much of the same in the AV discussion. I’m skeptical that AVs will lead a revolution of shared cars. I’m skeptical that AVs will completely take over the road. People like to own cars. They like to show off their cars. They like to drive cars (as long as nobody else is on the road). They like to store stuff in their cars. The culture of car ownership is deeply embedded, and breaking it down isn’t a matter of technology, it’s a matter of advocacy, laws, media, education, cost, and other factors. Should AVs arrive on the scene in the manner that their boosters suggest, there’s still no guarantee that the public will respond to them in the expected way.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Maybe I’m just old, but to me the story of the last threee decades is tech taking much, much longer than expected to bear fruit than predicted. I remember promises of VR and voice recognition in the 1990s. Only the latter is even sorta here now.

  6. Anon

    Regarding the crashes you mentioned:

    China Tesla Crash- Driver takes eyes off road for 20 seconds before crash, ignores repeated warnings to put hands back on wheel. Police investigation faults driver

    Florida 2016 Crash. Speeding Driver is watching movie and ignores repeated instructions pay attention. Investigation faults driver.

    California Crash: Driver ignores warnings to pay attention and put hands on the wheel and crashes into a cement barrier.

    Salt Lake City Crash: Driver takes hands of wheel for 80 seconds, ignoring multiple warnings.

    Zero of the 95 autonomous vehicle crashes you linked to involved Teslas.

    Also, SpaceX has made a profit in 2014, 2016 and 2017 – According to the very article you linked to!

    The very first words of the 2015 study you link to is “Even though they haven’t been at fault, self-driving test cars are involved in crashes at five times the rate of conventional cars, a new study finds.”

    Later on in that article:
    In almost every case, the accidents involving self-driving cars have involved other cars crashing into them. They are often traveling at slow speeds. No accidents have been reported from self-driving cars going haywire and a human is always on board in case something goes wrong.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      Doesn’t this prove a point about how hard the technology will be to implement? Level 2 and Level 3 automation are extremely dangerous and jumping from Level 1 to Level 4 will be tough.

      1. Anon

        I agree, especially about the jump from 1 to 2.

        Tesla’s mistake was allowing/encouraging people to think (via marketing) that their level 1.5 car was a level 3 car. Telsa is a near perfect as a level 1 car. It is the safest car ever built while being fast and fun to drive. Tesla has a great product, but their marketing –specifically the use of the word “autopilot” — was negligent, and they share some responsibility for the crashes caused by over-reliance on their system.

        My intention of the post was to demonstrate the misleading and inaccurate information provided about Tesla and SpaceX. Tesla’s long-term success can only come at the expense of many powerful, entrenched interests, some of whom have collectively bet billions on Tesla’s failure, making it the most shorted stock on the planet. Consequently, I see a constant stream of smear pieces on Tesla.

        I don’t know how far away level 3-4 cars are available, and I don’t deny the significant environmental impact of EV, nor do I disagree that Autonomous vehicles may facilitate the suburban lifestyle. I don’t own a Tesla, or invest in Tesla.

  7. Monte Castleman

    I’m skeptical of the timeframe suggested in that TaaS article if for no other reason because change never happens at that rate, even if there’s a clear advantage to newer technology. People had horses and buggies into the 1930s; how many people still have tube type TVs. That and people don’t always choose the cheapest option, things like comfort, privacy, safety, and such factor in too. Right now the cheapest option for most people would be to ride the bus, and how popular is that compared to paying more money to own a car? People will continue to own cars even if it’s cheaper to jump in a TaaS vehicle with a bunch of strangers that could be OK, but could be annoying to dangerous. I know I’m not going to get mugged by the empty front seat in my private car, or just annoyed by the empty seat talking about how lousy the Twins are doing.

    But if private self-driving cars happen anytime in the next 30 years, it’ll be fine with me. I’m not in any big hurry to give up driving, but by then I will be at about the age where my “manual car” driving skills might be in question, and I can let the computer do the driving without giving up the freedom, convenience, safety from crime, and comfort that a private car provides.

  8. Mike

    There are always optimists and visionaries who overpromise the tech advances. They are not wrong directionally but they may underestimate barriers to cross or resources That will be made available. And likewise there are always cynics who will highlight these misses to denigrate the predictors. It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize than it is to create change.

    However In this particular article it appears part of the hostility to autonomous vehicles is it may extend a rationale for the very existence of individual cars and the writer wants to live in a bike/bus/walk world. However these two points (autonomous has been oversold, by the way cars are bad) are distinct topics and arguments.

  9. Antonio BackmanAntonio B

    I always thought self-driving cars would be better served starting in rural parts of the country than cities. I could see government funded/contracted cars providing transportation services to Greater Minnesota’s seniors and people with disabilities far easier than one going down Hennepin Avenue. I mostly am interested in removing myself from having to own a car but still enjoying having car amenities (like trunk space) so I remain optimistic but I think it’s a safe bet that self-driving cars won’t be mainstream for most of my lifetime.

  10. David MarkleDavid Markle

    A time may come when driverless cars become personal rapid transit in cities: the difference between those modes being the present existence of the driverless car infrastructure and personal ownership of the car (in addition to the car’s utility outside the city). The driverless car has a front wheel in our door, so to speak, and has more going for it, politically, than PRT. We shall see what happens.

    By the way, I have a manual transmission in one vehicle, which–along with part-time 4-wheel drive and reasonably high clearance–makes it good for back country mountain roads. Am doubtful that a self-driving vehicle would do well for such conditions. But having a manual transmission makes little sense in town, especially in a hilly place like San Francisco.

  11. Truth about DIsney

    Before anyone starts criticizing Disney harshly – please view Walt Disney’s original film about the E.xperimental P.rototype C.ommunity O.f T.omorrow. His plans for a future city more-or-less relegated that sort of transportation to underground. The main forms of transportation in this city would be a WEDWay PeopleMover system (showcased at the Magic Kingdom and several airports around the country), and monorail system.

    A high speed rail line was planned to connect the theme park area to EPCOT City to an industrial area, and finally to an airport. Disney brought us the nation’s first monorail, the nation’s first PeopleMovers, and several train-heavy themed areas. And only one “Autopia”.

    While Walt died too early for his forward-thinking city plans to be put into motion — it seems to me that Walt Disney and the Disney Co. have been supporters of various and innovative forms of mass transit. As we speak, they are installing a gondola system between several resorts and parks.

  12. Melis Tusiray

    This is a poorly conceived argument. You should be giving equal weight to the many and tragic ways that we humans are unfit for driving a car.

    Instead of reaching for reasons for why self-driving cars can’t possibly work (they ARE working…and Teslas don’t count), you should be writing about how many people die unnecessarily because of distracted and impaired driving and you should be PLEADING for all involved to hasten the removal of humans from the controls of their death-boxes.

    You fail to entertain how quickly we could have self-driving cars in urban environments if we decided it was a priority.

    Denser, more-walkable and bike-able neighborhoods are fantastic but they don’t eliminate the need for extended transport (and don’t forget the very old and the very young and those hauling big things who can’t always walk or bike to their destination, especially in extreme heat…which we’ll have more of).

    And, YES, self-driving cars are perfectly capable of cutting down follow distances and reducing the elasticity in traffic movement.

    You fail to note the many, successful self-driven rides that have been conducted in AZ — they are tentative and imperfect drivers, but they are more vigilant than any human.

    And, @MattyLang, before you accuse people of astroturfing this discussion, why don’t you engage with their points?

    1. Eric Ecklund

      Why don’t you advocate for better public transit if you don’t want humans driving? Better to have one trained individual carrying multiple people instead of those multiple people being out on the road. Unlike autonomous cars, public transit doesn’t need to be tested because we already have it (even if it is a skeletal system of what it once was).

      People pushback on major transit investments because they think any day now we’ll all have autonomous cars and they’ll solve all of our transportation issues, but there are no cure-alls and we’re still waiting for our autonomous cars. How much longer do we have to wait? Will they perform as promised, or will it be nearly as imperfect as human drivers? These cars may be autonomous, but they’re designed by humans, so mistakes can still happen.

      1. Frank Phelan

        I can be for both better transit and driver-less vehicles. Human beings are terrible drivers, and that started long before cell phones.

        We haven’t even scratched the surface of AI, and already computers are better than radiologists. Driver-less vehicles are only a matter of time. Like computers, the side effects will be both good and bad.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I think the challenge will be in avoiding the desire to rush the technology because of what will be possible in the future by compromising other values. I have a real fear AI that can’t detect pedestrians and other users will be forced onto our streets with the argument that there will be fewer car crashes, thus further prioritizing the less vulnerable and the promise that it will get fixed eventually.

          Once that happens, I don’t have much faith in the eventually being any time soon, because, well, the last 100 years or so.

  13. Andrew Evans

    It’s getting out of the perpetual 5-10 years away and should be here in mass around 10 years from now. Or at least lower end cars will have what luxury brands and models have in 5-6 years. It’s really only a matter of time.

    Personally I think it’s going to be a battle between AI and big data. Right now we are relying on AI to make choices and recognize things – due to not being able to have every single road, sign, etc mapped. In the future there very well may be detailed and real time updated with vehicles having laser/radar units and updating what they have found. At that point it’s less about AI filling in gaps, and more about a program knowing everything around it. But, that’s just me and I don’t work in that field.

    What may happen is insurance rates will go up for those of us without self driving cars. That’s how the change will really start to happen.

    It will be interesting to see what happens to classic cars, gas prices, and racing at that point. Not that I’m in love with the ICE, but it will be a pretty big change from where we are now. Add into that the ever promised employees working from home, and it could be a totally different transportation landscape in 10+ years.


  14. Lewis Johnson

    If we want to reduce car pollution we must first address the problem of car production. As you said, it takes petrol to manufacture a car, even more, electric cars recharge from power outlets > power comes from power stations > Power stations feed on petrol. So electric cars (right now) can become more pollutant than gas vehicles IF we don’t change our power generation methods. It would be a whole different story if our power comes from renewable energy sources. Only then, an electric vehicle can really become “environmentally friendly”

    As for driverless cars, I think we are still far from a fully functional and safe prototype.

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