FUTURE BOY: Is a car without a driver still a car?

future-boyCall me Future Boy. My thoughts are often turned to the future. What will the coming years and decades bring? What will life be like a hundred or more years from now? But I’m also History Boy. I see an old house and wonder what it was like to live there when it was new, 75 or 100 years ago. When I see an old coin, I wonder who once held it, and what they spent it on.

I guess the sense of wonder is the core of it; and awe at the passage of time and the flow of human progress. There’s no stopping it – we’re all just along for the ride. Where will it all lead? None of us can know for sure, but the past can sometimes be a guide. Connecting the dots of earlier milestones can sometimes point to the next one. And human reaction to earlier transitions can be a powerful indicator of how humans will handle the next one.

When the internal combustion engine came along and people began building the first automobiles, what did people call them? “Horseless carriages” – the carriage was their current reference point and they described the new invention in reference to that – it was like a carriage, but without the horse to pull it.

Now that technology is replacing the driver, what are these new things called? “Driverless automobiles”. Today the point of reference is the auto, only now without the driver. But was a carriage without a horse still a carriage? No, it was something else, but people didn’t have a good name for it yet. Eventually they became automobiles, or autos or cars.

So is a car without a driver still a car? Maybe not. Several things are fundamentally different without the driver. I may still need my car to get home from work, but my car doesn’t need me to be useful. It doesn’t have to wait in the parking lot like a faithful dog until I get off work. It can go shuttle seniors to the supermarket, or bring someone’s kids home from school, or take a food order to a shut-in. When it picks me up at quitting time I’ll ask, “How was your day?”

Maybe an apple fell out of the lady’s shopping bag, or one of the kids got peanut butter on the door handle. Maybe the car took itself to a car wash and looks good as new. But is it still “my” car? I may own it and use it, but I’m not the only user. Do I have big fuzzy dice hanging in the front window and stick figure decals of my family in the back? Probably not – it’s not my 100% personal, private space anymore; now it’s a public space.

As a public space, do I even care to own it? Maybe – if the economics work I could buy two or three “driverless cars” and send them out in the world collecting fares and paying for themselves. But is “car” still a good description? More like “taxi”, “shuttle”, or “autopod” (I made that last one up – it’s shorter than “that thing formerly known as an automobile”).

And that thing will continue to evolve. Form follows function. Like the trains of the late 19th century, we could see passenger autopods, luxury autopods, mail autopods, dining autopods, sleeper autopods, etc. Few of these specialized models would make sense as the private property of a single owner, but make perfect sense as a shared public good. I think I’ll reserve a spot on tomorrow’s Chinese Restaurant ‘pod for lunch on my way to the meeting downtown.

Reader comments and suggestions are always welcome. Ideas for future Thought Experiments? Love to hear them. Drop me a line at whomren@gmail.com

Author: whomren

Wayne Homren is a longtime student of the history of science, technology and business who’s always been drawn to the future. As a software professional he worked in artificial intelligence back in the 1980s, before it got cold and then hot again in the current century. He was into the Internet before there were browsers, declaring to others “This will change the world.” He started a blog before the word was invented, and was a product manager for the pioneering search engine Lycos before the word Google became a verb. He built cyber tools for inspecting IPv6 packets long before IPv4 addresses were exhausted, and today is a Data Scientist for the U.S. Department of Defense, where the past, present and future often coexist. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and their three children.

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