Zachary Yost – May 15, 2021
By this point readers are more than familiar with the previously unthinkable infringements on our traditional rights and liberties due to “health and safety” lockdowns that the state has inflicted upon us over the last year. While thankfully more and more restrictions are being lifted, it is important not to forget the period of veritable universal house arrest that was enacted in many states, in which even the freedom to go for a drive was denied to us. It unfortunately seems inevitable that we will face such scenarios again when a convenient excuse comes along, though I fear that the next time will be even worse thanks to the advent of self-driving cars.
Self-driving cars seem like a truly amazing advancement in human technology. As someone who is not particularly fond of driving, I once followed their development with great interest and hopeful anticipation. However, the advent of lockdowns as an acceptable government policy has shown just a taste of the kind of dangers that would come with their widespread adoption. While they would liberate us from many of the dangers of the road and free up time in which to work or enjoy ourselves on a ride, the price of this liberation is actually an unprecedented level of government control.
Some advocates of self-driving cars argue that their adoption would mean that very few people would actually own a vehicle anymore, and that instead everyone would basically Uber everywhere. Oftentimes such predictions are espoused by people who lament how evil American prosperity is and cringe at the thought of our car culture’s carbon footprint.
It is not difficult to see how this could go very wrong. Can you imagine how much worse government lockdowns would have been at their height last year if the state merely needed to apply pressure to Uber-like ride services to cease general operation to stop people from moving? Ride services would almost certainly be forced to require government-issued documents in order to book a ride in such a scenario, leaving the vast majority of the population completely stranded and unable to go anywhere.
Fortunately, there are many reasons to believe that without massive government intervention America is not likely to willingly let go of its deeply ingrained car culture in favor of ubiquitous Ubering.
However, even if people do own their self-driving cars, the danger remains.
Tesla is a case in point. Unlike a “traditional” car that drives off the lot and disappears into the traffic, Tesla cars are perpetually connected to the internet and Tesla itself. As the pioneer in self-driving cars, it seems likely that other manufacturers will also build around Tesla’s concept, which is itself similar to numerous other “smart appliance” trends in everything from house lighting to fridges, ovens, and washing machines. While this connectivity has great uses, such as allowing repairs to be completed remotely, the danger is obvious.
Customers have complained about having features of their Tesla being removed without their notice or authorization, prompting one reporter to remark that “if someone buys a used car with cruise control, there isn’t an expectation that the manufacturer will then arrive and ask to remove it,” yet something similar has already happened. Similarly, Tesla collects vast amounts of data from its cars, which is no doubt useful and needed for continuing to improve the system and work out kinks, but it is dangerously naïve to believe that such data would remain outside the reach of the government if it wanted it.
Finally, the same danger with universal Ubering still remains. Tesla or any self-driving car that would naturally require some level of internet connection can be remotely shut down. As cool as Tesla may seem, the odds are very slim that it would defy a state order to render its fleet inoperable in the name of “public safety” or any other excuse the government may come up with.
Think back to the hysteria of last spring. You are kidding yourself if you believe that people like Governor Whitmer of Michigan wouldn’t have ordered all cars rendered inoperable until “essential workers” were granted permission to drive if such a thing had been within her power.
The picture becomes even more bleak if one thinks of the nefarious uses such control could be used for beyond “public health” lockdowns. What if our current cancel culture craziness were to continue into a death spiral that resulted in something akin to the Chinese social credit system? Such a thing seems unthinkable—“this is America,” after all. But if in 2019 we had been visited by a time traveler who told us that in a year Americans would be forbidden from leaving their homes or going to church and that businesses would be forced to close en masse, we likely would have thought such a person was crazy. Yet here we are.
It is easy to see all the benefits that would come with self-driving cars, but at the end of the day the potential for dramatically increased government control and abuse is horrifying to contemplate.
Originally published at Mises.org.
Image source: Stock Catalog via Flickr