A Nation of Passengers

One of the hallmarks of American freedom is one’s sense of personal autonomy: we are free to go where we want, whenever we want, subject only to our finances and schedules. Except in extraordinary circumstances, the state cannot tell us where we may or may not go, or how to get there.

True, the government began controlling access to airplanes as far back as the Cuban hijackings in the 1960s, and more intrusive screening was instituted in the wake of 9/11. But, as yet, we do not have a system of internal passports, such as the Soviet Union did, nor is there any agency preventing you from getting in your car and driving the length of the continent should you so desire.

But just wait until you’re forced into a “driverless” car.

As I noted on Twitter the other day, these vehicles are emasculating, imprisoning, anti-American, and inhuman. And now, in the wake of the first fatal accident involving an “autonomous vehicle,” they’re deadly as well.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck by an Uber driverless Volvo SUV in Tempe, Arizona, and died of her injuries. In the wake of the accident, Uber temporarily suspended its four-city testing program, although Tempe police are saying the Uber car was not at fault, and nothing could have prevented the tragedy, so suddenly did it occur.

Maybe—but even though the Uber car had a “backup driver,” we’ll never really know, will we?

Whence comes this rush to robot cars? Did the public demand it? Or have our betters in the tech industry and in the bowels of the bureaucracy taken it upon themselves to correct our lamentable human failings and, in the name of “safety,” shove these vehicles down our throats?

Already there are 400 pilotless Johnny Cabs (the reference is to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Total Recall) on the roads in California, and the state is about to permit cars with no backup drivers onto state highways on April 2. Had April Fool’s Day fallen on a Monday this year, instead of Sunday, the symbolism would have been perfect.

In any case, the joke’s on us. The nominal reason for introducing technology that absolutely no red-blooded American male could possibly want is that cars with no drivers and no steering wheels are somehow going to be safer, and that by eliminating human error—stupidity, drunkenness, distracted driving, texting and a million other crazy things people do in their cars while in motion—we’ll all get where we’re going in one piece. But given the still-imperfect state of the technology, how could driverless cars be perfectly safe? We don’t even have consistent cell service yet.

But even if Johnny Cabs were perfectly safe the moral argument against them would be strong.

We know, for example, that roughly 30,000 Americans will die in traffic accidents every year—a number that has been steadily declining for decades, by the way, even as the population has increased—and yet that minuscule risk is one we all willingly assume every time we get behind the wheel, whether it’s to run to the store, take the kids to after-school activities, or to drive across country just for the hell of it. Are the tech giants and the auto manufacturers really arguing that this number will now magically and precipitously fall?

Further, the point of driving for many of us is not simply to get there alive, but to enjoy the trip; that’s why some folks prefer to saddle up a Mustang or lasso a Jaguar. Driving is supposed to be fun and, for most men of my acquaintance, it’s never any fun being a passenger, or piloting a Prius. The lure of the open road created the American muscle car, while the joy of a Sunday drive in the country paved the way for generations of touring sedans, as ordinary Americans decided to see the U.S.A in their Chevrolets.

And what’s the point of listening to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” if you’re not putting some pedal to the metal?

There are more sinister reasons to be wary of driverless cars, however. In the post-9/11 age, the government has a limitless appetite for surveillance power—law enforcement is now able to track every American carrying a cell phone—a robocar is a “convenience” just waiting to be exploited and abused. Who, for example, programs the ride? Who controls it? Should the police decide that they have a few questions for you, what’s to prevent your Johnny Cab from detouring from grandma’s house to the local precinct station? And if it does, what are you going to do about it?

These are not idle questions. The assault on the Fourth Amendment is by now nearly complete. “Terrorism” is the all-purpose excuse for monitoring the innocent along with the potentially guilty, and just about everybody can fall under suspicion. The very act of boarding a plane now exposes to you formerly unreasonable search and seizure, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. So why would you climb into a robocar and take yourself hostage on purpose?

For the same reason you’ve willingly surrendered your rights of privacy to entities like Facebook and Google. As Instapundit Glenn Reynolds and others have long noted of social media and search engines, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

It’s amusing that the same folks celebrating the Obama campaign’s skillful exploitation of social media, especially via Facebook, are now reacting like virgins in a bordello when confronted with the media-fueled Cambridge Analytica scandal—which is only a scandal because the press can attach the names of some of their favorite right-wing bogeymen to it, including Robert Mercer and, of course, Donald Trump. And now Robert Mueller seems to be getting into the act, too.

“Convenience,” however, is no reason to voluntarily surrender your personal autonomy to something that will, by definition, be subject to close governmental scrutiny and control. When Huck Finn felt the chains of civilization closing in on him, his impulse was to “light out for the territory.” Today, we call an Uber, and leave the driving to . . . who, exactly?

But that’s what the land of the free is rapidly becoming: a nation of passengers, without even enough gumption to be backseat drivers. Enjoy the ride.

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Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)

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34 responses to “A Nation of Passengers”

  1. I’ve been mocked for years as paranoid for warning of the consequences of ceding the steering wheel to the state. The do not fly list would be just a pesky irritant by comparison. Consider having only approved destinations and associations according to your government profile. Scary stuff.

    On the other hand, walking is healthy. Of course the “security cams” may make that problematic too.

    • “Walking is healthy.” Indeed it is, but I am reminded of a short story (possibly a Bradbury) where a man goes for a walk in the night and is stopped and questioned by an automated police car. Once it’s learned that he isn’t going to a particular place and dislikes t.v., etc., he is taken into custody as a dangerous person.

  2. Nothing says Big Brother more forcefully than self-driving cars–which in reality are third-party controlled cars sending out a steady stream of data that can be used for any purpose whatsoever.

  3. Do we now get robotic cop cars to pull them over and ticket them?

  4. Cue Rush’s “Red Barchetta.”

    When that record first came out, I was like, “No way.” Now, I’m like, “Way.”

    Except that I drive a Nissan. Won’t be leading the Progressive Police on any wild chase in that!

  5. All part of the totalitarian feminization of the West

    • Or very old men who still want to get around without relying on their children all the time. The elderly and other “mobility impaired” should welcome the driverless car, but there should be very few others.

  6. While I don’t buy into the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’, this article is the first clear example of ‘moronic masculinity’ I’ve ever read.

    Dude, your penis isn’t changed by the size, power or driver of the car you’re in.


    • Dude, maybe not … But being in control of a major aspect of one’s life — where we go, when we go, how to get there, and whether big tech or big brother is taking notes — is nothing to LOL about.

    • I am sure Freud would conclude that disdain for high power automobiles would be as much a sign of sexual and social immaturity as a fear of firearms.

  7. The questions in the article might not be “idle,” but they sure are stupid.

  8. There’s no media to take on any of the abuses cited in Michael Walsh’s article. This country has sunk to dangerous levels. Freedom lost is rearely won back.

  9. “Tempe police are saying the Uber car was not at fault, and nothing could have prevented the tragedy, so suddenly did it occur.”

    Accidents happen… OK, the woman stepped off the curb and pure physics prevented any avoidance of the fatality. So, the “driverless car was not at fault”? How could it be? Is inaction of the “backup driver” (apparently not driving) subject to accountability? Who would be accountable if the driverless car was found to be at fault? The GPS, the provider, the network, the programmer.

    I guess we should just get used to traffic fatalities caused by faultless vehicles — who is to blame if the “vehicle” must “choose” between hitting a child or a pregnant woman? “Fault” will kill this budding industry of surveillance vehicles, so I would expect significant effort from these tech providers to avoid the moral dilemma going to court.

    • The programmer. The good news is that developer salaries will be around $800K per year. The bad news is their malpractice insurance will be about $750K per year.

    • The lawyers have been looking at this a lot. There is civil fault and criminal fault – very different things. You can be sure that our legal system will find a way to penalize *someone*.

      “caused by faultless vehicles” – if they are faultless, they don’t cause fatalities. In this case, the fatality was caused by the pedestrian walking onto a dark, fasts street in the middle of a long block on a curve, not wearing or carrying a light or highly reflective clothing. Darwin in action.

  10. The fans of driverless cars apparently can’t conceive of the scenario where an unguarded comment prompts the computer controlling the car to lock the doors, follow a path to the local re-education center, which it has contacted before the new thought-criminal arrives.

  11. In the words of the great Hank Williams Jr..i got a shotgun a rifle and a four wheel drive. And I drive

  12. I’ll be dead before then.A couple more dead pedestrians and it’s back to the drawing board

  13. When the cattle cars are gone because they’re too obvious, here’s the alternative.

  14. I’m not worried. Autonomous vehicles are Decades away. The Uber car should have never hit that lady. She was almost out of the street.

    • She was in the middle of Mill Avenue, in the dark, not in a crosswalk, with less that 1.1 seconds of reaction time for a vehicle going 38 mph. If you were driving, you’d have hit her.

      • The car was going slower than traffic normally goes at that point, at night. I live nearby. Traffic engineers will tell you that, absent invisible hazards, the “right” speed is the 85th percentile of what drivers will do naturally.

        In other words, the car was going at a reasonable speed, even if it was 3 mph over the speed limit.

  15. This is a solution without a problem. If you are so important that you can’t drive yourself around, you are probably rich enough to hire a full-time driver. Back in the day when I spent twenty hours a week in the car, I talked on the phone, dictated letters and reports on a small recorder, and listened to great books on tape — all while driving myself around, What’s more, I monitored the traffic reports and would take alternate routes to avoid delays. If I needed to pee, I would look for a McDonalds or a gas station. I never felt that I was “wasting time” by operating the car.

    • I OTOH would much rather have my car drive itself. I’d rather do work on a laptop during my 30-minute commute, thus reducing the length of the work day. And, since there’s so much wasted time tacked on to the front and back end of flights now, trips of less than 300 miles are better by car. I want to spend that four hours sleeping and/or surfing the web and/or dining, rather than piloting an automobile. 95% of driving is drudgery. I’d rather the car do it instead of me.

      But I agree that the column is nonsensical click bait. Did the advent of automatic elevators in the 1940s mean that the elevators were controlled by government agencies, keeping you going to the floor you wanted? Did the advent of automatic washing machines in the 1950s mean that you could no longer set the water temperature or spin speed? Why on earth does automating driving suddenly mean that we no longer have control over our automobiles? Perhaps the author’s tinfoil hat is getting too tight.

  16. This mess started with the invention of the automatic transmission

  17. On the plus side it frees you up for lengthy sessions delivering your data to Zuckbook.

  18. The author neglects those us who enjoy driving, but hate being forced to drive. In other words, driving can be fun, but having to drive for many purposes is a nuisance. Also neglected are the needs of the rapidly growing population of elderly who need mobility but may not be able to drive.

    This isn’t any form of sissification – it’s recovering lots of time lost to basically menial labor of guiding a car along boring interstates or through city traffic, and enabling people to travel in their own vehicles when otherwise they could not unless they are wealthy enough to hire drivers.

    The privacy concerns are not to be ignored, but let’s face it, we have lost our driving privacy already. Automatic license plate readers are scanning traffic all over the place and feeding it to central databases. And yet, few people are complaining. Paradise Valley, AZ has a number of fake Saguaro cacti with license plate scanners in them.

    Also, automated cars are not necessarily tattle tales – automation does not require a network connection.

    And, for those who imagine that GPS makes you trackable – stop watching so many TV shows. GPS *receivers* do not track you – in that regard, they are no different from your car radio.

  19. If you look at the video from the latest Uber accident, it is quite clear that a human driver would not have been able to avoid it. The total reaction time to this very unexpected event on a dark, fast street was 1.1 seconds.

    However, that car should have been able to beat a human’s reflexes, and it didn’t. That needs to be investigated.

  20. Maybe 20 years after trains are autonomous, cars may be ready. The targets for litigation are to big, right now a driver is responsible for each accident, but if you could point to GM or Toyota for 5000 deaths each from their driverless technologies, no company could afford the risk.

  21. Bit ironic that the first thing you see on a page with people complaining about tech shoving things down our throats, is “like us on facebook”.

    If you are on facebook, you are an enemy of freedom. FULL STOP. If you are on twitter, you are my enemy. FULL STOP. You are sully on board supporting it all, just by having a facebook account.

  22. Government regulations and insurance costs will make owner-operated cars too expensive except for the 1%. The government will take on ownership, repair & maintenance, and even the cost of trips (for the chosen). The temptation to never have to pay for insurance or car loans or gas or repairs will be overwhelming for mainstream America. Just slip your citizenship card into the car along with your desired destination and the cost of transporting your body will be put on your government tab.