Until recently, Chris Urmson, was the head of the driverless car project at Alphabet’s X. He famously said his goal was to ensure that his young son never needed a driver’s license, and as a father who had plenty of close calls in a car during my dumb teenage years, I completely agree.
Urmson’s son was 11 when he said that, allowing a 5-year window for the technology to reach maturity. My own boys have more than a decade before they are old enough to apply for a driver’s license, but I’m already working to plant in their young minds the notion that cars are meant to operate themselves, and that putting humans behind the wheel is wasteful at best, dangerous at worst.
This is "AI" only in the loosest sense
Over the last week, I’ve been entertaining them with the HotWheel AI racing set. While it has artificial intelligence in the name, the set doesn’t actually leverage any of the key technologies that power driverless cars. It uses thick pieces of paper for its track, and each section has a colored gradient moving from light in the center to dark at the edges. Sensors on the bottom of the cars can read this gradient and steer to stay toward the center, allowing them to race around the track even if no one is driving. These toy cars don’t learn and they don’t really adapt. Sure, they can follow the track if you rearrange it to another shape, but so can lots of battery-powered racecars on ordinary tracks.
Still, the Hot Wheels set provides a teachable moment. You can drive the cars manually, but my two sons are too young to have much luck completing the course this way. So I let them struggle and crash for a while, then seat them on the couch and put the cars in full auto. We’ve done this a couple times and they always sit mesmerized for a period of 10–15 minutes, watching the cars effortlessly scoot around the track, occasionally bumping and jostling one another.
Afterwards I asked my boys who was driving the car? "Batman and Joker." "Cars was driving." "You daddy, you." I explained that the cars could drive themselves, just like our autonomous vacuum cleaner can find its own way around the house. "They’re magic?" my older son asked, like the broomsticks Mickey Mouse bring to life in Fantasia to handle his sweeping for him? I wasn’t going to get into Clarke’s Law with a kid still learning how to write his own name, so I just shook my head and agreed.
My children have only experienced driving as passengers strapped into car seats, but I decided to push things a little further. "Do you think its good for humans to drive, or is it better for cars to drive themselves?" I asked. My older son, currently in pre-school, mulled this one over for a while. "Better for the cars," he said. "If humans drive, it hurts their bodies."
I want human driving to seem like a lame thing only dads do
I don’t know exactly what his rational was here, but I encouraged this answer. Maybe it stemmed from seeing me shake out stiff legs after a long drive. Or from his own discomfort after being strapped into a safety seat for hours on end. Whatever the source, this was thinking I wanted to encourage. I hope that by the time he’s a teenager, eager to explore risky behaviors and craving both freedom and agency, he’ll think of people driving cars as outdated and unnatural, an activity his goofy old dad used to do, but which no self-respecting 21st century citizen would pursue.
It's hard to say when we'll hit the tipping point that will bring driverless cars from a few small-scale tests to ubiquitous deployment. And even after they become safe enough to pass muster with regulators, they will probably have to share the road with legacy vehicles operated by all too fallible wetware. I'm betting we'll get there sooner than later, within the next decade, and when it happens, my kids will think the change seems obvious, not unsettling. Now if only I could get them to speak politely to Alexa...