flying and driving

Driving and Flying

This is sub-chapter #17, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


I promised you positivity, enough to outweigh the tedium of the preceding chapters, and here it be.

What do planes and automobiles have in common? Well, right now, not so much, aside from getting you from point A to point B. But soon, a whole lot more, and it will make life easier and better for everyone.

Let’s start with airplanes today and extrapolate out into the near future with cars. We don’t have everyone today clamoring to own an airplane, as we do with cars, because they are excessively expensive to buy, to maintain, and to fuel. Instead, large companies are built around them that own and lease them out on an as-needed basis for those who need to travel. In order for these companies to keep costs down (and thus, keep ticket prices as cheap as possible), they routinely fly their airplanes as often as is safely possible. Airplanes often have about a ninety-six percent usage rate (cars have approximately a ninety-six percent idle rate).

That’s why we don’t have a billion airplanes everywhere, but why we do have a billion cars. Cars are dumb machines, much as a phone used to be, only able to send and receive calls and SMS. (It’s almost difficult to remember such phones.) A car needs to be driven everywhere by a human driver. Also, we humans aren’t nearly as rational, safe, and proficient as we like to think we are, and we often make mistakes. Sometimes we hit other cars or other people. Sometimes we drive ourselves off the road, or neglect to take local weather conditions into account and various other factors that cause a significant amount of damage around the world, both personal and monetary. (Why I’m bringing up bad and dangerous driving will make sense soon.)

That’s all about to change. Google is developing and testing the self-driving car, and to conclude the phone analogy above; it is the iPhone of cars. It has had over 300,000 miles of road testing with nary a hiccup to its name, or the equivalent of driving twelve times around the world. (It was involved in two accidents, but was being manually operated both times.) The necessary legislation that will allow it to drive on the road has already been approved in three US states; Nevada, California, and Florida. (And I’m sure many more to come; the one thing you can count on politicians to do is try to play catch-up)

These self-driving G-cars are a miracle in disguise, and in more ways than one. Imagine never needing more than one car per household (or per street). Imagine accidents being a thing of the past, or driving to the bar to get your drink on and back home risk free. Imagine traffic jams and congestions being a distant memory. Imagine all the money you won’t spend on insurance and parking tickets. Imagine never losing a dear friend or loved one at the wheels of a drunk driver or wet road. Imagine not having to worry about your teenage child going out late at night and all the other positive consequences I’m too dumb to think of.

Ninety-three percent of all automobile crashes are wholly or indirectly attributed to human error; intoxication, texting or calling while driving, and various other human factors. Global traffic accidents are in the range of fifty-million per year, and deaths as a result of those accidents are in the neighborhood of 1.3 million per year according (to the World Health Organization, though there are other estimates that put the number at $230 billion). Not being able to count the human cost of such tragedy (nor should one try), the millions of injuries incur costs of roughly $100 billion per year. By 2019, human deaths are projected to hit 1.9 million. The potential for change with the driverless car is nothing short of huge.

Here is a fictional scenario of a family of three in a not-too-distant future.

Husband, on his drive in to work in the morning; checks his work email on his smart phone, listens to the news on the dashboard TV, and sips his coffee with nary a glance at the road. Upon arriving at work, he instructs Car, as one would a pet, to return home. Fifteen minutes later, Wife gets a message that Car has returned as it pulls into the driveway, so she walks Kid outside and helps him hop aboard, telling Car to drive him to school, as one would of a chauffeur. Car drives with Kid in tow, while Wife goes back inside to finish her now-peaceful morning coffee. Car drives smoothly through traffic and, at full speed, straight through a roundabout without stopping thanks to its array of sensors on-board that monitor the environment in every direction thousands of times per second, as well as keep in contact wirelessly with nearby cars; all of whom, in unison, plot a course so that, with minimal disruption to speed, they criss-cross with ease and nary a hiccup. Coming up to a red light, it smoothly glides to a stop. As the red light turns green, all the other networked cars simultaneously start driving forward; their radars and 3D cameras preventing them from ever hitting each other, eliminating congestion on the once-chaotic roads. What was once a thirty-minute drive is now a relaxing twelve. As Car arrives at the school and stops at the sidewalk, Kid hurriedly shouts at the car to go back home as he disembarks and runs to the playground to find his friends. Twelve minutes later, Wife receives another message, picking up her handbag as she reads it; she strolls out onto the driveway, jumps in, and says, “Take me to work.

Once cars become self-driving, it will be feasible, cost-effective, safer, and environmentally friendlier to have a handful of cars service multiple households, perhaps an entire street. In fact, there may well be  citywide car-sharing companies (using Big Data and statistical analysis), determining how many cars can service the entire population: the city of Paris is currently in such trials, though the cars they are using are not self-driving. Time, traffic, parking, accidents, and congestion cease to be problems anymore. You might not be able to stroke your ego with your big new car anymore, but your small personal loss will result in the long-term gain of the human race and our biosphere.

That is a future that can be made possible due to the driverless car, and it could not have come at a better time either.

According to the International Energy Agency, global peak oil was reached in 2006. So we’re officially past the halfway mark of the world’s cheap oil supply, with an increasingly energy-hungry and population-heavy developing world competing with the developed world going forward for what remains. China and India are spending tens of billions of dollars buying up oil-fields around the world. Using nothing more than logic, we can be sure that the second half won’t last nearly as long, nor be nearly as cheap, as the first half, though this does not preclude us from using dirtier oil sources such as Tar Sands and Heavy Crude etc, though they are far worse for the environment, human health, and far more expensive. The act of making a car in itself is a hugely oil-intensive task, let alone filling up the tank, and this will only become more so.

If a technology such as self-driving cars makes the transition from development to mass-market adoption; we’ll have fewer cars on the road, efficient roads, no accidents, no injuries or deaths, no congestion or traffic jams, and perhaps even no traffic lights. The cost savings that will result from a resource, medical, productivity, and environmental standpoint will be enormous and could potentially reinvigorate lagging economies (by repurposing money sunk into oil, cars, congestion, etc., into new businesses and investments), and we will all be better off—that is, if money still exists at this point (more on this in the Future of Work). Larry Page, the CEO of Google, recently went on the record that it would save Google itself hundreds of millions of dollars in parking costs. Imagine what it will save the rest of the world? And this, rather greedily and perhaps shortsightedly, speaks only of cash.

There may even come a time—nay, will if mass-adopted—that governments (perhaps even insurance companies) forbid manual driving due to the danger it poses others. Taxi, bus, and truck drivers, and traffic light repairmen et al, will be out of work, and it is unfortunate that such progress comes with such pain, but unfortunately, there is no way around that. As Gary Marcus from the New Yorker writes, “it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.”

Everything has a cost, and that cost must be paid in full, for the sake of progress and the betterment of all human life.

5 thoughts on “Driving and Flying”

  1. One door closes another opens. Still, there are many very scary structural issues surrounding the labor market in the future. New (software driven) industries do not employ the same number of heads as the one’s they supersede.

    1. Here, I take the side of Kevin Kelly, 70% of today’s jobs didn’t exist 70 years ago, and 70% of the future jobs don’t exist today, so it’s hard to judge. Though, let’s take the assumption that no future jobs are on the way, we will still have the wealth and abundance to feed, hydrate, and house everyone with plenty to spare. But it requires a structural reformation of our socioeconomic models, which always change, but that needs to be deliberately tuned using empirical data based on well-being, efficiency etc that gets the most bang for our buck averaged over the whole population. (I don’t mean to make it sound easy, but it should be doable.) Im thinking money in the future will no longer be the barometer we use to gauge GDP or national well-being (perhaps one of several), but it just makes less and less sense to use only money. When Big Data rules the world, and when cause-and-effect of actions and reactions can be tracked accurately, perhaps your information becomes your credit card. If you’re in tune with nature, or increasing productivity that helps others (others being nature, animals, people etc), then all’s free. Do the reverse, and you gotta cough up (hopefully incentivizing less reverse-doing in time).

      What do you think?

      1. Star Trek? Sounds great! Sounds better than great, but i can’t see that happening while corporatism rules the coop. Was talking about this last night with my wife. We realised there was a serious mistake in all Star Trek chapters. The Enterprise always seems rather filled with people, but what are they actually doing? 400 years in the future something like the Enterprise would only need a crew of 10, if that, and 9 of those would probably be technicians.

        Back to the topic. I do love the idea. I hope we’re capable of pulling it off. Chatting the other day with Richard Prosner (baby and the bathwater blog) and teased the idea free that any such paradigmatic shift like that will have to first be tested/refined/achieved in a small but wealthy economy like NZ or even Australia. Hell, Norfolk Island could be a testbed. Something, however, has to change, and change bog.

        1. I am in agreement with you in that something has to give, though I differ in opinion when it is said that corporatism will always rule the roost (it does for now, but that is not an inviolable law). Corporations live and die, and it’s usually small startups that do the trick when the titans become to insulated against change. Peter Diamandis (Author of Abundance: Why The Future Is Better Than You Think, which I highly recommend btw), makes the point that individuals and small startups today have resources (and often enough, the smarts) that outweigh the titans of last decade, and the mobility to overthrow the titans of today.

          To give two small examples; the military industrial complex creates drones at a cost of $35,000. There is a group of weekend DIYers that make similar (and in some cases, better) drones for 1% of that cost. The same can be said of genes, tech, banks (one guy, Mohammed Younis if I recall the name correctly), has pulled a hundred-million people out of poverty in the asian region. (When was the last time a bank, let alone a single man, did that?)

          My opinion can be summed up in these two sentences:

          In the short-term, I am somewhat of a pessimist. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the quote by Churchill, where he says America can always be counted to do the right thing, when it has exhausted all other choices. Replace america with humanity, and that’s where I think I fall in the short-term.

          In the long-term, I’m an optimist. Matt Ridley says it best. Nothing can stop the inexorable march of technology and the way it will affect humanity. Not that we shouldn’t keep a wary eye, as technology is amoral. As a society, we need to steer it in the right direction, and I feel we will. 🙂

          I think Africa will be the testing ground of a lot of these ideas and technologies. They skipped the landline and went straight to the cellphone. Seeing that 70% of africans dont have electricity, they’ll most likely skip coal and gas power stations and go straight to renewables coupled with battery storage (in the next 5-10 years, the infrastructure and economics will be definitively in the renewable area, if not there already). From there, it’ll, hopefully, migrate westward. I recommend the book Abundance, the author goes in deep with these subjects, and literally hundreds of others. (That is, if you haven’t already read it.) Love having these types of conversations though 🙂

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