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

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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)