Are we all asleep at the wheel of a self-driving car, being dragged towards an unpredictable future by impersonal, uncontrollable technological change? Videos of people sound asleep in their Teslas as the cars hurtle down the highway have become a thing, and Peter C. Baker, writing in the New York Times, sees them as a powerful metaphor for the relentless forces that are transforming human society as most of us remain blissfully oblivious.
Above: Please wake up sir, you should NOT use Autopilot while sleeping in your car (YouTube: DAErik)
The videos come from around the country - one was shot near Las Vegas, one in Massachusetts, one in Los Angeles - but they’re all pretty much the same. Some fool is snoozing in the driver’s seat, as the person shooting the video from the next lane looks on in shock, sometimes futilely shouting, “Wake up!” Miraculously, as far as we know none of these video-recorded incidents has ended in disaster so far.
This isn’t exactly a new issue - ever since Autopilot came out, bozos have been posting various kinds of “Look ma, no hands!” videos. Tesla has consistently discouraged the misuse of Autopilot, both as a matter of company policy and by building safety controls into the system. As Jalopnik eloquently pointed out, “Tesla absolutely does not want anyone doing this with Autopilot. They have very specific safeguards to prevent this kind of dumbassery, and while, sure, a car without Autopilot would have likely crashed much sooner, this is still a terrible idea.”
Autopilot is designed to shut down if drivers take their hands off the wheel - the system is supposed to issue an audible warning, and even to automatically slow down and stop if necessary. But of course, what the mind of man can invent, the mind of the Trickster can circumvent. There are online tips for getting around Autopilot’s safeguards by using an inanimate object, for instance, to fool the system into thinking that there’s a hand on the wheel. (Often, Tesla's software updates quietly make such tricks obsolete.)
Of course, as Mr. Baker points out, these Tesla Sleeper videos could be staged - the supposed sleepers and/or the video-makers could have carefully orchestrated the whole thing. However, real or invented, these performances are troubling on (at least) three levels. First, these nonchalant nappers are endangering themselves and others, and it’s probably only a matter of time before a careless catnap does end in disaster. Second, the trend highlights an unfortunate reality that applies to many of the technologies we humans use and abuse. Autopilot (like drugs, knives, nuclear power and Facebook) is safe enough when used as directed, but there are always going to be those who choose to do precisely what they’ve been directed not to. Every example of someone using Autopilot irresponsibly is grist for the mill of the anti-Tesla and anti-EV crowd.
Finally, the metaphor that Baker has identified is a powerful and alarming one. At this point in history, mankind seems much like a sleeper in a speeding Tesla - we have willingly surrendered control to a machine, which is now carrying us at breakneck speed into an unknowable future.
“Until recently,” Baker writes, “the promise of Silicon Valley transforming everything was greeted with some optimism. Technology was supposed to make the world more efficient, convenient and responsive to our desires.” Back in the 1990s, I and my fellow web developers imagined that the internet would democratize media, dethrone the power brokers, and empower “the little guy.” Instead, it has led to the concentration of power (e.g. Facebook, Amazon, Google) leading to huge global monopolies, which has enabled the rapid spread of divisive disinformation and given repressive governments and power-hungry corporations terrifying new tools to spy on and manipulate us.
Elon Musk firmly believes that vehicle autonomy will make our roads safer, although he admits more data is needed to make a convincing case (especially to government regulators). On the other hand, I am among those who fear that it will also have negative consequences, eliminating jobs in the trucking and taxi industries, discouraging people from using public transport and encouraging sprawl. Even vehicle electrification, which I wholeheartedly support, is bound to have its downsides - millions of workers in the fossil fuel industries will see their livelihoods fade away, and this is already beginning to have political consequences.
All new technologies have good and bad effects, and society must take advantage of the former while minimizing the latter. However, the tech upheavals now underway are so far-reaching, and are moving so fast, that it’s hard to see what kind of “society” could exert any control. Governments are paralyzed by internal political power struggles, and are decades behind the times when it comes to this tsunami of technological change. Meanwhile, their power is gradually passing to tech giants, accountable to no one, who seem to be motivated only by short-term profits.
Will we all wake up before it’s too late, and guide our civilization safely down the road, or will it all end in a fiery crash?