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Heh - it's a worthwhile rant to read. I wonder if there are any connections with "browsing through a bookstore/library" and the impact of eBooks?

But, you don't touch the cultural impact all that much, which I think is at the heart of of the "who we are" line. In a generation or two, when kids haven't grown up with that coming-of-age-ritual of getting a driver's license, or been exposed to the pedals and wheels of independence and controls...will it still be a part of who they are?

It must be Friday :-)

I have a lot of sympathy for your view, but don't you have this problem already? You said yourself that you prefer a manual shift, even though its functionally inferior, and you can hardly justify an MX 5 on practical grounds. These things are not in the "needs doing" category.

In fact, many people don't really need a car at all; I drive about 3,500 km a year, and for that it would be more economical to take taxis than to drive. I have a car because I want one, not because I need one. My car is a hatchback because that is a practical format, but my hatchback is is a Golf R (manual only in NA!) because I like it. We're already well down this road.

Nick, You said:

"Consequentialist/utilitarians will never get this."

I get it.

glen: "But, you don't touch the cultural impact all that much, which I think is at the heart of of the "who we are" line. In a generation or two, when kids haven't grown up with that coming-of-age-ritual of getting a driver's license, or been exposed to the pedals and wheels of independence and controls...will it still be a part of who they are?"

I think what you say there is an important part of it. I thought about saying something about it, but dropped it when I realised I couldn't do it well. You said it better than I could have. (Mine would have degenerated into a personal history of my cars, starting with the 1955 Ford Anglia when I was 12, and learning to drive off-road as a kid.)

Yep, the next generations will be all about smartphones and crap like that. They will shrug their shoulders at learning how to read a map and compass.

Phil: It's an MX6, dammit! Not an MX5. Totally different car! MX5's are commonly seen. MX6's are a rare and dying breed. Like me.

But yes, I can't really justify the MX6 at all on practical grounds, even though I keep stupidly trying to. I have fallen back on aesthetics. But somehow, when it comes to crafts rather than arts, we can't really divorce aesthetics from the practical.

Scott: Aha! That proves you are not a true consequentialist/utilitarian/Scotsman!

(But I'm glad you get it.)

"artificial challenge that we made up for ourselves"

On the one hand, the naturalness ascribed to automobiles is worth noting. Being able to drive, in the sense of a wheel and some number of pedals, was not at all something that needed doing not that long ago around here, and is still not always something that can be done in some places today.

But on the other, as you astutely note, when and where the option to drive exists in conditions of driverless possibility, it becomes an artifice to choose to drive.

You seem unnerved by such artifice. Perhaps hanging around people who still ride horses would provide a different perspective?

Nick - great rant!

For millennia there has been survival value in laziness. One of the most memorable scenes I saw when I was on safari in Africa was of a lion just sitting and watching a wildebeest. The wildebeest got closer and closer (got lousy eyesight, wildebeests) but the lion just sat and watched, thinking "I'm not going to bother to expend a whole lot of energy chasing that wildebeest when it's just going to run away. I'm going to wait until it gets close enough that I've got a good chance of catching it." Which is a smart survival strategy - it doesn't burn unnecessary calories on futile wildebeest chases.

So we sit and watch life, waiting for something to come along that's worth getting out of our chair for. But our lives are so easy - food delivered to the door, or sitting in the freezer, everything we need to hand - there's no need to ever get out of our chairs. And then we get bored and depressed because we're not doing anything and doing stuff is what gives life meaning.

This may be an urban myth, but I've heard that the first cake mixes were just-add-water cake mixes. They didn't sell because it didn't feel like baking. So the manufacturers took out the powdered eggs and milk, got people to add their own eggs and milk, and the cake mix sold like hot cakes. People like to feel that they're doing something, that what they do has value and meaning.

We need challenge to thrive.

B.t.w., no one is coming up with a self-driving bicycle any time soon - have you thought of joining my tribe?

As an economist though you must appreciate the massive amount of utility that is wasted everyday as millions of people are stuck in traffic. Freeing up that wasted capacity would be a huge boon for our economy.

I also wonder why you don't walk everywhere and completely eschew the convenience of the car? You say that driving is an arbitrary task that we created for ourselves but it is an artificial convenience we created because we didn't want to walk every where. The jump from walking to cars is the same from cars to driverless cars and ludditism is just as irrational for driverless cars as it is for every other technological advance that creates convenience. I don't understand how you can hate future convenience but then use present convenience everyday. It's just a fear of change rationalized as some love of "honest" work.

Plus think of how much blogging you would get done during your commute to work.

To follow up on Justin's comment above, the rant raises a question that I see popping up in a lot of areas these days - When does the degree of automation emerge into detachment from any 'naturalness'? (And, when should this matter?)

The new necessary challenge will be to improve the software which controls your driverless car, which can then be done while being escorted by your driverless car. So you see, there'll still be some stuff to do while sitting in your car.

I hate horseless carriages.

Horseless carriages pose no threat to my job, my income, or my wealth. That's not it.

The animal rights activists, or public hygiene nazis, might force us to use horseless carriages. That would be a threat to my enjoyment of riding. But even if that threat were eliminated, so each of us always had the option to ride ourselves, I would still hate horseless carriages. That's not it either.

What I hate is the very option to use a horseless carriage. Because being able to exercise that option, even if I did not have to exercise that option, would make "riding" something very different from what it is without that option.

We want the crop, and we want the spurs; and a quarterhorse is better than a draught, even if a draught horse can pull more equipment.

Yes, it is true that we find riding enjoyable, and many others don't. But we find it enjoyable in part because breaking and controlling a horse is a real challenge, that our world imposes on us, and not an artificial challenge that we made up for ourselves. With any artificial challenge, that nagging question always remains "why am I doing this?"

Consequentialist/utilitarians will never get this.

Yes, I fully understand that many people don't like riding. Even more importantly, some people simply cannot break or ride a horse, and cannot learn to. Maybe my strength will deteriorate, and I too will be unable to ride.

But I do feel an urge to smash the machines.

Justin: "You seem unnerved by such artifice. Perhaps hanging around people who still ride horses would provide a different perspective?"

I think that is a good analogy. The car (with real driver) is going the way of the horse. But riding on weekends, like modern hunting, just can't be the same as it used to be. Taking a car to the track isn't like a real road-trip, even though you are allowed to drive much faster.

Frances: thanks!

"And then we get bored and depressed because we're not doing anything and doing stuff is what gives life meaning."

Bingo! The Summer doldrums. We degenerate.

"B.t.w., no one is coming up with a self-driving bicycle any time soon - have you thought of joining my tribe?"

Well, they did come up with the self-pedalling bicycle! (And they do have a self-driving motorbike, I think.) Maybe. It might become tempting.

Ian: "As an economist though you must appreciate the massive amount of utility that is wasted everyday as millions of people are stuck in traffic. Freeing up that wasted capacity would be a huge boon for our economy."

But this whole post is a critique of the economist's perspective. It's about whether ends are independent of means. A critique of utilitarianism.

Yes, being stuck in traffic is a pain. But if I avoid rush hour, my 25km commute between home and work is a daily pleasure.

Driving is a "convenience", compared to walking, but it's a convenience that requires and rewards attention and skill. Driverless cars are de-skilling our lives. They reduce our autonomy and self-reliance and self-responsibility. Total idiots can sit in a driverless car and go from A to B, provided they can punch in the right numbers into the GPS. Driving has already become too easy and boring, especially for people without pride, so they text behind the wheel.

"It's just a fear of change rationalized as some love of "honest" work."

Yes, I fear change. I am becoming more and more reactionary, as I get older. But maybe I am right to become reactionary.

glen: "When does the degree of automation emerge into detachment from any 'naturalness'? (And, when should this matter?)"

I think I see many people trying (sometimes in ridiculous ways) to put "naturalness" back into their lives. Like "locavores", for example. To say they have "first world problems" is possibly more insightful than just a put-down. They are trying desperately to pretend that their artificial self-imposed constraints are real. Similarly, my little rant against driverless cars will look ridiculous to someone who really needs to get from A to B but can't.

Tom: haven't they invented self-writing software yet? That should be easy.


I partially agree but not for the reasons I think you are asserting. My problem is that technology isn't neutral---I feel that the fine detail of the form it takes has effects on the overall political structure of society. So what I would like is a driverless car, but one which would require effort to use :)

I drove from Ottawa to Boston and return over the Civic Holiday weekend and will likely drive to Montreal for this weekend.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Of course, it's tiring after a while, but the experience of being on the road with nothing to do but listen to music and control the car is very soothing. My passengers were a bit concerned at some stages when they'd all fall asleep but I had no problem staying up.

On the other hand, I'm quite aware I'm risking life and limb for a pretty small pleasure.

My sensible side would gladly take the auto button on a long road trip, but I would still want to take the wheel every so often. But it'd bristle me if my passengers got judgmental at that.

Unconvinced: (Some Jalopniks ask why we don't hate electric starter motors, automatic chokes, and automatic advance/retard ignition sysytems. My old motorbike had to be started by foot, and had levers on the handlebars for the choke and ignition advance/retard.) But driving a car and riding a horse both require and reward attention and skill. Driverless cars don't. The switch to horseless carriages was smaller than the switch to driverless carriages.

Kelvin: my thoughts exactly. Even after long hours, when it's tiring, and not "fun", I still want to do it. (I keep promising myself I will do the Ottawa-Boston area drive, via the back roads.)

You sound like someone who could benefit from riding a motorcycle. The challenge/fun of driving a car (even a really pricey one) will seem practically quaint when you've been on a bike (even a really cheap one) and you will appreciate anything that will make clueless cagers less dangerous to you much, much more. A driverless car will never merge into your lane without signalling because they are too busy posting a Facebook status on their mobile phone.

You'll probably have to stick to the back roads once the robots take over. Anyone that still "drives" along the Interstate once the robot cars are dominant are gonna look like real jerks, like the guy that insists on doing his running on a crowded downtown street.

Not that it's less safe (it's more safe, since the robots will be smarter), but people's expectations of what stands for competent road navigation will increase past most drivers' abilities.

"It's an MX6, dammit!"

Oh! Sorry. I guess I thought that was dead, rather than dying. I hadn't pictured you getting so enthusiastic about a FWD car. (And what's so great about a Ford Probe anyway? :-)

"Yes, being stuck in traffic is a pain. But if I avoid rush hour, my 25km commute between home and work is a daily pleasure."

You are only able to maintain this position because you occupy an extremely privileged position. 25km? Is that like 15-20 min drive? Many people are stuck in traffic/driving for 1-1.5 hours. Sorry if I don't share your concern for the "skills" we will lost as we move to automated driving.

Kuri: Yes, I really understand that appeal of motorbikes. But they scare me too much.

Kelvin: yes, even if I swallow my pride, I will still be totally out of place.

Phil: they pretty much are all dead, nowadays. Just a few left, mostly around eastern Ontario and Quebec. I can drive for days without seeing another one, even the step-sister Probe.

Yep, most Jalops don't like FWD. I learned to appreciate it after trying to keep a RWD RX3 straight on a straight icy road. Plus, there is something very aesthetically appealing about a transverse engine, because it's just wrong to make power do a 90 degree turn, unnecessarily.

Ian: of course I'm "privileged". And proud of it too! And I chose not to live in a place like South-East England, where I would have to spend 1-1.5 hours stuck in traffic commuting into London. (And I currently drive an extra hour from Ottawa to London Ontario, via Orillia(!) precisely to avoid driving anywhere near Toronto. No offence Toronto.)

I understand the concerns of people who don't like driving, or who don't like being stuck in traffic every day for hours and have few alternatives. I do not ask you to *share* my concerns. I simply ask you to understand why I have them.

Plus, just in case it wasn't clear, I am trying to use my own hatred of driverless cars as a vehicle (sorry) to help *me* understand *other* people who seem to me to have an irrational hatred of new technologies, and the market, and trade, etc.

The insurance companies, or safety-nazis, might force us to use driverless cars.

In theory if everybody gave up driving, then doesn't the individual car insurance market go away. This sounds like a risk one of largest revenue stream for insurance companies to me. (On the other hand the talking lizard would go away.) I know there will be insurance on driving but it would only be for taxi companies.

Considering the economics of driverless cars, it is going to a couple generations for driverless cars to take over.

The idea that driving is an activity that rewards skill has always baffled me. Driving properly could not be more dull or unskilled. It is like doing quality control on a high-quality assembly line, without the breaks or the salary. Red light, stop. Green light, go. Stay between the lines. Slow down if the car in front slows down. These rules are entertaining only for toddlers, who would laugh hardest when breaking them, which we aren't allowed to do. Sports, arts, meditation, cooking, raising children, making children: these are activities that require skill and can be rewarding. The most difficult and rewarding aspect of driving is certainly how to deal with the frustrations of congestion, delays and poor drivers. Recently, when some analytically-challenged driver in an Audi SUV accelerates dramatically around me to get one car length ahead in our 10km/h queue on the DVP, or when I spent an extra 15 minutes waiting for all the cars that slowed to look at the accident on the other side of the highway, I say with whimsy and hope "I can't wait for drivers to be replaced by robots."

collin: I'm not sure about this. Collectively, insurance companies might lose from driverless cars. With fewer accidents, their business would fall. But each individual insurance company would still offer lower premiums to driverless cars, if they are safer. But (I think) they would only offer that lower premium on a car that could not be driven by a human. Otherwise those who like driving would buy a driverless car, but never use the auto option. Would there then be a big enough market to support the people who are prepared to pay the higher premiums for cars they can drive themselves? And what type of sorting equilibrium would we get in that case? Maybe the most dangerous drivers would select into auto-only cars, which would make the remaining pool of drivers safer than before, and bring down their premiums. Or maybe it would work the other way, where only those who love risk would want to drive themselves, which would raise their premiums even higher. Dunno.

But I think the biggest threat is from MADD simply dropping a D, and becoming Mothers Against Drivers.

It takes away your 'job', but doesn't it give you something better, a hobby? I thought economists assume leisure is always preferred to work. Is it you haven't the will to make the choice, or the choice itself makes it unworthwhile? I could see making the choice, and being even better because it was a choice and not an obligation.

DVP Victim: driving 700 km on the QC-138 along the St-Laurent North Shore at night in winter is a high-skill avocation (which, when I am not in the mood, I eschew for a quiet 90 minutes boring airplane ride).

DVP: If I only drove the Don Valley Parkway, I would probably feel the same way. I hate that road.

The other problem is that modern cars are just too good. Too good for their own good. The famous philosopher Jeremy Clarkson made some somber reflections on this problem, while driving an Aston Martin. (There's a YouTube of it somewhere). Especially with speed limits.

Swap the auto for a manual. Smash the GPS and buy an map. Leave Toronto. Head out for the backroads, because Canada is a very big country, and has some lovely empty curvy roads. Drive a slow car fast.

(If what I read is correct, your parenting skills won't have any effect on your kids either. And sports, art, and cooking, are all artificial challenges anyway.)

Jacques Rene: "driving 700 km on the QC-138 along the St-Laurent North Shore..."

I strongly second that recommendation, even though I have only driven a little past Tadoussac. One of the world's most beautiful roads.

Lord: " I could see making the choice, and being even better because it was a choice and not an obligation."

That, I am starting to suspect, is where economists sometimes get it wrong.

While we wait for driverless cars we should ask if it's feasible to capture some of the expected efficiencies. How are driverless cars going to do that and can we get people to act similarly or cars to act similarly or roads and intersections to create a similar flow?
Probably a lot of the same sensors and fail safes that would prevent driverless cars from running into each other will already be preventing cars with drivers from running into each other. Real time variable speed limits could smooth traffic flows. Better signalling at traffic lights to coordinate acceleration. The easiest of all ways to imrove traffic flow, where possible, is to have slower traffic keep right.

Miami: I think you are right. But I think this sort of thing has already been happening, in a piecemeal fashion. More and more driver's aids. Driverless cars is just the last step.

Nick, yes, some software does write software, but so far there's always been a place for humans in the loop. When that disappears we're done for!

BTW, I had a vision of you in your driverless car 10 years from now doing one of two things:

1. Writing more blog posts (you'll have a lot of free time)

2. Playing a driving video game (many driverless cars will come equipped with these to keep people like you entertained and calm).

Glen wrote:

"To follow up on Justin's comment above, the rant raises a question that I see popping up in a lot of areas these days - When does the degree of automation emerge into detachment from any 'naturalness'? (And, when should this matter?)"

When did the present alienation begin? In the current circumstance, roughly around the advent of the cotton gin.

When does this matter? Constantly, because of the dialectic of second and first nature, viz. Lukacs. That is, our 'social' 'artificial' second nature (which is alienated) produces a desire for naturalness, which emerges as first nature, a nostalgic image of 'what was lost', an image which may or may not have any connection to any actually existing being or process. Hence the mourning of the (anticipated) loss of the 'natural' challenge of driving.

Oh yeah! Western Marxism, cutting through the noise on econ blogs!

Tom: But I will have to find some way to yell out: "You kids get off my lawn!"

Justin: I figured the Marxists might have something to say about this! But why do those same Marxists seem to want force us all to take the bus, or train, driven by the friendly and safe government driver? (Or is that just a myth?)

Already, for routine tasks,automated aircraft piloting is safer than human. Except when unprogrammed emergencies occur, when you need fast imagination. At least for now, no computer can outwit the Robert Piché
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Pich%C3%A9
and the Chessley Sullenberger
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sullenberger

" But why do those same Marxists seem to want force us all to take the bus, or train, driven by the friendly and safe government driver?"
When perfect communism has been achieved and all the means of production are in the hands of the proles, we'll all share in driving our communal buses. And the rest of the time we'll play bus-driving games, enjoying the meta.

"Tom: But I will have to find some way to yell out: "You kids get off my lawn!""

Nick, the beauty is you can spend all your time doing that... sticking your head through the sunroof, and shaking your fist at them too... and of course yelling at other "drivers" as well. :D

All current benefits of driverless cars can be captured by taxis and limos. Until the autonomous car is mandatory or or cheaper than hiring a car it'll likely be this way. All the time and lives it could purportedly save needs to be compared to the time immediately before it's adopted completely. Until then it frees time you must spend in your driverless car, regular car or taxi. And whose benefit is exclusive to the driver. Which leads me to the conclusion that the time it would free is not valuable since the opportunity cost for those who drive is time spent playing angry birds or whatever. If my time were valuable enough to justify a driverless car I wouldn't be driving, i'd be working from the back of my limousine.

Nick,

I used to feel similarly about twist-off beer bottles. (Especially in situations where an opener isn't available.)

That said, although I understand exactly where you're coming from, I can't resist urging you to consider what an absurd situation we currently have with human-driven cars as everyone's primary mode of transport. The system involves wheeled sheet metal boxes, zooming at a few dozen meters per second, manned and steered by creatures whose reaction time is around a second. To make this crazy practice reasonably workable and safe, we have to design most of the public spaces in a way that makes them extremely unfriendly for any other mode of transport, or any other human activity in general. We also have to put up with things that we'd otherwise consider a totalitarian nightmare. Just imagine if there was a law that you have to display a tag with your government ID number on your shirt when walking in public, that you're allowed to walk only in unison with others in orderly columns along marked official trails, or that the police should stop and detain random passers-by for paper checks -- yet with driving, essentially the same things are taken for granted as normal.

Also, Orwell had some remarks along very similar lines in "The Road to Wigan Pier" (bold emphasis mine):

But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain 'creative work'? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity--as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is _there_, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train--or by car or aeroplane. Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every ten minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where every-thing could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery. Deliberately to revert to primitive methods to use archaic took, to put silly little difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall.

"When perfect communism has been achieved and all the means of production are in the hands of the proles, we'll all share in driving our communal buses. And the rest of the time we'll play bus-driving games, enjoying the meta."

In perfect communism, there will be no distinction between these.

Vladimir: that is a lovely passage from Orwell. Very good find. My favourite bits:

" In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available......Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where every-thing could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery. Deliberately to revert to primitive methods to use archaic took, to put silly little difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall."

I grew up in a *real* Tudor house, with real beams; none of your mock Tudor for me!

I expect I shouldn't feel too bad that he had said it first, and said it better. Damn. "Smash 'The Road to Wigan Pier'! It's stopping me blogging!'

Ian: of course I'm "privileged". And proud of it too! And I chose not to live in a place like South-East England, where I would have to spend 1-1.5 hours stuck in traffic commuting into London. (And I currently drive an extra hour from Ottawa to London Ontario, via Orillia(!) precisely to avoid driving anywhere near Toronto. No offence Toronto.)
I understand the concerns of people who don't like driving, or who don't like being stuck in traffic every day for hours and have few alternatives. I do not ask you to *share* my concerns. I simply ask you to understand why I have them.

Ok I see where you are coming from now. You enjoy driving to a certain extent and see a time in the future where insurance companies may mandate driverless cars or the market may not produce non automated vehicles and this would take a leisure activity away from those who still want to drive from time to time.

While I am not sure that would happen anytime soon I certainly wouldn't want the pleasure I gain from reading on my iphone to take away the pleasure others gain from reading print books.

Ian: that's closer, but still not it.

Read that bit from Orwell in Vladimir's comment above. Orwell says it better than me (unsurprisingly).

I guess I still don't get it. In orwells time a train ride might have temporary death but in modern times with a laptop or iPad you can engage in all manner of productive or artistic endeavors, all of which are more enriching than walking or driving as an end in themselves.

I can see driving as a sort of meditative experience. I drive from ottawa to Waterloo about once a month and I don't mind it because it does give a place away from all distraction. A time to zone out for a few hours and clear my head. But to engage in that for more than the 5 hours a month I do would start encroach on the productive time I have engaging in projects or enjoying modern entertainment. I just can't see how I would ever see driving on a regular basis a net gain in utility but I suppose to each their.

"whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death"

But mobile technology has flipped this around, at least for planes, so the interregnum is a blessed time free of mobile technology - a time to read a book or watch a movie or write an essay or do whatever one's heart desires - except for check email!

Which is not at all inconsistent with Nick's basic hypothesis that things that make life easier can make us less happy (damn. that's consequentialist. which is not Nick's point at all.)

Frances: try: shifting the budget constraint out can make us less happy. WARP fails.

Yep, pad (or the non self fonctionning version , already available in Orwell's time, the book) gave us back time from the drudgery of driving the oxcart.
But each time I choose to drive along the St-Laurent, I see I am still unsatiated of the river and mountain view.
As for the rest, we invented the hobby, aconcept so weird few of our ancestors would have understood let alone conceive. And we have invented tourism. And medieval fairs. And reenactors...

I live in a rural area with an aging population. I experience driverless cars all too often. The arrival of ones where it's a robot rather than a half-blind 90-year-old (or drunk college student) in charge can't come soon enough. I also sit on the Board of the local United Way, one of our agencies is the Rockbridge Area Transportation Service, basically a taxi service that specializes in carting the disabled and elderly and (yes) carless to and from doctors and hospitals. Given dispersed residences (though less than in the days of the horse) not being able to access transportation is life threatening. So will taxis continue to serve this niche (with drivers who can help those whose ambulatory skills are impaired)?

I've blogged the argument elsewhere, that autonomy is unlikely anytime soon, partly because turning over the fleet in the motor vehicle sector takes decades, partly because of diminishing returns, where most of the benefits will be captured by something short of the [self-serving] Google vision.

On a different point, don't expect autonomous vehicles to end traffic congestion. There could be short-term improvements thanks to better traffic flow, but crowded roads reflect a balancing of the opportunity cost of time against desired residential locations, CBD rent gradients, standard urban structure stuff. Lower the time cost and in the space of a few years we will find more people orienting their home-work flow along such corridors ... and we'll again have congestion. [I also see claims that autonomous vehicles would lead to fewer vehicles on the road, but ride sharing and staggered working hours have long been available, the underlying behavior clearly reflects a preference to commute solo and in a narrow set of time slots.]

mike: thanks for commenting! A *real* auto-economist, unlike my amateurish efforts.

I was thinking about the self-driving car vs taxi comparison. I see two differences:

1. The computer (presumably) has a lower wage than the taxi-driver.
2. But the self-driving car is always right there where you are, and there's not the wait and expense of the taxi driving out to pick you up. It's really more like having a cheap chauffer than a taxi.

Delurking to say bravo, Nick - you said what I've been thinking better than I could articulate it myself.

Thanks Declan!

I have now just read your May 19 post. I like it. We are following similar paths.

"Consequentialist/utilitarians will never get this."

This is actually a pretty profound little litmus test. Most of the time I read your posts and generally agree with you, or at least can see how your conclusions are at least reasonable. However, the more I read of this post the less I understood it. Until I got to the final sentence - I'm certainly a consequentialist and I am basically a utilitarian.

Matt: yep. And my guess is that economists will have a harder time understanding it than non-economists. It goes so much against the grain.

Nick - you must read this latest by Charlie Brooker describing introducing his toddler to an on-line game called Motorbike Driver, and everything that's wrong with human progress:

Worst of all, in the iPhone version – which surprise, surprise masquerades as "free" – the bike runs out of fuel now and then, and the only way to refill the tank it is to wait for a countdown to expire (slightly harder for a two-year-old than completing a tapestry), watch an advert (evil) or to purchase in-game petrol from the App Store. I first became aware of this when he screamed and hurled the phone across a restaurant table in a fury. I caved in immediately and, illustrating everything that's wrong with human progress, found myself spending real money on non-existent petrol for a non-existent motorbike in a desperate bid to appease an infant. Spending money to shut him up felt transgressive and undignified – but worse still, I was literally fuelling his addiction.

Nick, if I may paraphrase, you enjoy doing something that a) you're good at, b) is challenging, and c) is useful (in a utilitarian sense). In a world with self-driving cars, manual driving won't be useful any more. You dislike the idea of that world because there's one less thing for you to enjoy. Is that fair?

You also enjoy doing maintenance work on the MX6 yourself, right? Does the idea of a self-repairing car bother you as much as the idea of a self-driving car? And if so, what about the idea of professional car mechanics, who are basically car-repair robots (other than the robot part, anyway)?

If you want a challenge you can go hunting or weave your own cloth or write a book or anything. There's never going to be a shortage of productive activities for people to do. We dont need to clutter the streets of commerce (literally in this case) with people's hobbies.

I love this post Nick (and no, I find no joy in driving). I find it interesting how many find it in some way troublesome to acknowledge that innovations that may benefit others can have a profound psychological cost to others. Somehow we're not supposed to say anything when over-all welfare improving changes are net negatives for us?

However, I think the real gem of the article is this:

Because being able to exercise that option, even if I did not have to exercise that option, would make "driving" something very different from what it is without that option. In much the same way that "hunting" means something very different today in an agricultural economy with supermarkets than it did for our ancestors.

I think people who cannot truly fathom this truth cannot understand the massive challenges that modern technology poses to so many aboriginal peoples. Even were they not subject to exploitation/racism/poverty, having your core identity become an optional "hobby" seems (by my observations) an almost insurmountable obstacle to long-term success.

Tom: thanks! I think that is the key point too.

"I think people who cannot truly fathom this truth cannot understand the massive challenges that modern technology poses to so many aboriginal peoples. Even were they not subject to exploitation/racism/poverty, having your core identity become an optional "hobby" seems (by my observations) an almost insurmountable obstacle to long-term success."

I have for some time suspected that something like that was true and important. Especially for men. And I suspect that the decline of the fur trade due to animal rights people was especially damaging for destroying a bridge between the old ways and skills and the modern global economy. And I suspect that aboriginal men, like US black men, are canaries in the coal mine for many white men.

I have toyed with doing a post on this, but my near total ignorance of aboriginals, plus race/sex being a minefield, means I haven't. So I write posts on money, which even though it matters a lot when it screws up, doesn't matter as much as that stuff, in the long run.

Plus, Tom, if you read through the comments above, you will see that many commenters missed that key point. And I think the reason they missed it is because it's just too weird, so their eyes skimmed right over it, like a typo.

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