The Vanishing Steering Wheel

For the contemporary young generation, living life with the comforts of a generation ago is all but unthinkable. While cordless phones were once a luxury, cell phones are now a staple. As the fax machine — a product of technology once considered a modern-day wonder — heads for obsolescence, email has replaced it as a primary means of communication.

As the pace of technological advancement began to assume dizzying speed, one of the areas in which change was most noticeable was in the world of transportation. Horses, donkeys and camels, which had faithfully taken people from one place to another for thousands of years, were rapidly replaced by engines. Wagons and carriages pulled by animals, as well as boats and ships, were succeeded by locomotives, automobiles and airplanes.

If industry experts are right — and they have been wrong before — one of the most dramatic changes in transportation is coming in the very near future. While the way our cars look and drive is very different from the 1908 Ford Model T, what has remained consistent throughout the decades has been the fact that, ultimately, there was a human being at the wheel.

With U.S. regulators expected to begin issuing guidelines to help the introduction of self-driving car technology within the next few months, the era of cars driven not by humans but by robot-like computers appears to be only a few short years away. Cars that can drive themselves under limited conditions are expected to be available within five to 10 years. Versions able to navigate under most conditions may take 10 to 20 years.

The most notable feature of self-driving cars will presumably be that of convenience. Some states currently require that these cars have steering wheels and pedals and a human onboard with the ability to assume control if necessary, but it is uncertain how long this restriction will remain in place. The self-driving feature will mean that commuters could simply type in a destination and take a nap — or preferably learn or say some Tehillim (acts that, baruch Hashem, remain beyond the purview of a robot!) — until they arrive at their destination. They could choose to stay home and send their car to pick up their spouse from work or their children from school.

Yet, as is true with a great many technological advances, easier doesn’t always mean better, and clever inventions don’t necessarily translate to happiness.

Whether — as the companies behind these driverless cars, as well as many industry experts, suggest — these cars will actually be safer than cars driven by humans, remains to be seen. With human error responsible for 90 percent of traffic accidents, these experts predict that the new technology will sharply reduce accidents, driving down the cost of insurance and repairs.

But while computers don’t doze off or get easily distracted, they lack the extra gifts of human intelligence and instinct that were exclusively given to mankind.

It will take considerable time before the real advantages and drawbacks of driverless cars will be apparent. However, according to an Associated Press report, transportation researchers are warning that people are expected to use these cars too much. Researchers now believe the number of miles driven will skyrocket. While it isn’t certain that this will mean a corresponding surge in traffic congestion, it’s a clear possibility.

Vehicles traveled a record 3.1 trillion miles in the U.S. last year. Increased trips by driverless cars may double that number, possibly causing congestion nightmares. While the occupant of the vehicle will not have to focus on the road, he may be spending so much more sitting time in traffic that he may long for the “good old days” when he sat behind the wheel.

But congestion may be the least of our problems. As it is, the average driver’s use of one of his most precious assets — his mind — is rapidly dwindling. With the ever-increasing popularity of GPS devices and navigation programs, more and more drivers rely solely on the small screen or the robotic voice emanating from the dashboard. Instead of using common sense to draw conclusions and come up with creative alternatives, drivers prefer to blindly follow the computerized technology. And as long as we remember to put in the right coordinates, it is likely that we will get to the destination we seek, or at least within close proximity to it.

But in the process we are ceasing to think. The more accustomed we become to relying on technology to do our reasoning, the rustier our intellect will become. This in turn spills into many other areas of life, robbing us of the ability to be creative or analytical. Driverless cars will only further this deterioration.

Recent technological advances have proven to be the cause of an enormous amount of stress, tension, and even heartache. While they are here to stay, when looking at the big picture we can hardly say that we are really better off with them than without them.

We can only hope and daven that Moshiach will come well before the roads fill up with driverless cars, for only then will all truly have the wisdom to decide when and how to use technology properly.