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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Super Science Trends | [ssba]

To the Autono-Mobile! 2: Beyond Motordom

On the evening of March 20 2018, Arizona resident Elaine Herzberg was crossing the street with her bicycle and was struck by an autonomous (self-driving) car. The car was owned and operated by Uber, manned, but not “driven”, by one of their employees. Herzberg later died from her injuries in hospital. This incident marks the first ever pedestrian death by a self-driving car.
The first question posed in the aftermath is usually who to blame, but with self-driving cars there are even more middlemen to consider beyond just the pedestrian and the driver ( operator? occupant? car tamer?). These include the software developers of the car’s navigation system, and city councils that keep tabs on when and where autonomous cars are driven. The reason Uber’s cars operate in Arizona at all is because San Francisco wouldn’t let them go out on the road without submitting safety data, and since Uber is notoriously resistant to oversight, they took themselves to Arizona, where laws are looser. As is unfortunately the rule with any developing technology, we have to make up for unforeseen consequences after the fact.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, the inception of the automobile was no different. The responsibilities of pedestrians, drivers, and manufacturers were all influenced by commercial concerns and changing social norms. Gas-powered vehicles first entered the American streets in 1896, initially as luxury items for the rich, but becoming more common with the introduction of the affordable Model T in 1908. Prior to vehicles, city roads were shared by all thoroughfare, such as horse-drawn carriages, vendor carts, and foot traffic. Pedestrians didn’t know how to react to cars, treating them as dangerous metallic intruders, and drivers had to learn how to use them on the fly, which led to several pedestrian collisions.

With 200,000 cars on the road by 1909, road customs had to be invented in quick succession. The first road code and road markings came in 1903, and the first traffic lights and stop signs followed in 1914. Since children regularly played in the street, road rules were taught to children in school by 1915, and as fines and manslaughter charges started to pile up from reckless drivers, the first traffic court was established in New York the following year.

By 1925, two-thirds of deaths in American cities were a result of auto collisions, as people could simply not get used to cars, and pedestrians began to turn against them for infringing on their right to the road. When car sales began to drop, former Ford executive James Couzens formed the corporate-run auto lobby “Motordom” alongside manufacturers, gas and rubber companies, and auto dealers, and began a campaign to turn blame for collisions onto the pedestrian. This was done in part by coining the derogatory term jaywalker, meaning “country bumpkin”, which caught on as an elitist jab at people who couldn’t jive with urban modernity. As printed car ads became a lucrative means of funding, newspaper publishers began to extol the virtues of the car and blame pedestrians who couldn’t get with the program. Within a generation, cars ruled the streets, and collisions became an accepted consequence of city life.
The last time I wrote an autonomous car column, I analogised their trolley problem-esque ethical quandaries to the literalisation of an old writing adage: the good sci-fi writer invents the car, the great sci-fi writer invents the traffic jam. After March 20, we’ve crossed another threshold in our ongoing cyberpunk dystopia, and a thought experiment has gone from hypothetical to stark reality. What I wonder now is, who will I watch trying to talk their way out of a fine?


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