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Where Will Driverless Cars Take Us?

To the Editors:

I read with interest Brian Hayes’s thoughtful column, “Leave the Driving to It” (September–October), in which he examines some of the possible concomitants of the push to develop driverless cars. What Hayes does not mention are the potential effects of this and other such technological “advances” on our independence, competence and originality as individual human beings.

It has been said that our children are increasingly being “raised by machines.” And a colleague worries that he sees in our current students a “profound disconnection with the natural world.” As I consider the burgeoning entertainment and social-networking industries, I interpret those remarks in a larger sense: More and more of our daily experience is secondhand—gathered, edited and placed by someone else. With such increasingly artificial and thus constrained experience, who will see the surprising new thing, either indoors or out, that may refresh the thinking of his or her generation? How will we develop the perceptiveness, skills and responsibility to enrich our understanding and appreciation of the complex world, natural and social, that we have inherited?

I’m ignoring the more practical issues, some of which Mr. Hayes does mention: energy and resource availability, the loss of a profession (drivers) at a time of frightening unemployment, and even the loss of social interaction on public transportation. But I do ask: Can we think this through more fully?

Helen Ghiradella
University at Albany, State University of New York

To the Editors:

Brian Hayes left out one important contribution that computer-driven cars may help us achieve: making the electric car practical. A computer-guided car would be able to engage an electrified rail or wire on limited-access roads that have such infrastructure. This improvement would make limited battery range inconsequential, because the battery would only be needed for local streets.

I also predict that the first autonomous or semiautonomous vehicles will be agricultural equipment. Tractors and other such vehicles are slow moving and expensive. The slow speeds ease the control problem, and the high cost allows for a more expensive solution. The strength of the agricultural-equipment manufacturers in farm states will also help ease the political and legal barriers to autonomous vehicles. Sometime in the near future, farmers will direct three or more tractors from a base station, attending to the tractors when the machines need executive assistance.

David Errick
Tenafly, NJ

Mr. Hayes responds:

As Helen Ghiradella points out, the social consequences of technological change are difficult to predict, and they often overtake us before we realize what’s coming. My main motive for writing about the prospect of self-driving vehicles was to provoke questions such as those that Ghiradella raises. Here’s another: If we become thoroughly accustomed to cars that go where they’re told without driver intervention, will we lose our own geographic sense of how to find our way?

David Errick mentions agricultural applications of autonomous vehicles. As it happens, tractors, combines and other farm vehicles steered by GPS signals have been a part of “precision agriculture” for several years.

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