Robot drivers mean good riddance to humans

Like gas-electric hybrids and battery vehicles, driverless technology has gone from zero to 60 in what seems the blink of an eye, and it's on verge of making human drivers obsolete. Don Pittis says good riddance.

Google, Uber already know it's dangerous and inefficient to let people drive vehicles

In the 1990 film Total Recall, a robot cab driver tries to take Arnold Schwarzenegger's character for a ride, with predictable results. Twenty-five years later, economics means science fiction is becoming reality, with subtle differences. (Alliance Films)

Economically, having a human being drive your taxi is crazy.

Google knows it and so does Uber, according to news this week. While it may be hard to believe, I predict taxi drivers are on the verge of going the way of the bus conductor. 

And those freelance drivers who have been Ubering the regular old-fashioned cabbies? They are about to be Ubered themselves. And it's only a matter of years, not decades.

Not just taxis

Of course, it's about more than taxis. Because once humans no longer drive cabs, I don't give the rest of us human drivers long. Your children may never have to learn to turn a steering wheel. Considering the mess on Toronto's roads this week, all I can say is, good riddance.

I know there will be screams of protest. I like driving as much as the next person, the feel of all that power at your finger and toe-tips. For those of us who still drive stick shifts, there is the sensation of merging human and machine that thrills a certain kind of personality. For the young, there's the feeling of risk and cutting it close.

But with two powerful and vigorous companies, Google and Uber, competing for the prize, each backed by piles of cash, I'm afraid the die is cast. The first question, whether it's possible, has now been pretty well decided.

Sci-fi staple

Driverless cars have been a staple of science fiction for decades, including that great scene from the Philip K. Dick-inspired movie Total Recall, where a chatty robot JohnnyCab tries to take Arnold Schwarzenegger's character for a ride. It doesn't end well for Johnny.

But like other technologies whose time has come, driverless cars have gone over the last decade from science fiction to here and now.

Google forecasts its driverless vehicles will be available to the public in two to five years. Audi has been testing an A8 on Florida roads that will be available by 2017. It will "always be better than human beings," said Stefan Moser, Audi head of product and technology communications. Robots are already driving mining trucks and commuter trains.

Once technology is proven, getting rid of the humans is simply inevitable. We have seen it happen again and again. Elevator operators. Doormen. Secretaries. Once humans are replaceable, they disappear. Humans are expensive. Computers are cheap.

Expensive humans

"It's worth remembering that IT cost is typically about four per cent of annual revenue, whereas the labour costs that can be rationalized by smart machines are as high as 40 per cent of revenue," said a report I quoted in a previous article predicting robots would come to take your job.

As Schwarzenegger's character found out, moving from human to robotic cab service service may not be seamless. Some people might prefer the human touch. And for a while at least, you will be able to get it. If you can afford it.

Rich people may have hung onto their lady's maids to do their delicates. The rest of us converted to washing machines. 

Once cabs are guided by computers, how long do you think you'll last behind the wheel?

This point was driven home to me yesterday as my friend and colleague Kirsty Jefferies rushed into the office looking harried, late for her job as senior producer of The Exchange with Amanda LangJefferies commutes to the Toronto city centre by train. 

"It was awful," she said of a deadly accident that snarled roads. "It took me an hour and a quarter to get the train station."

Multiply my friend's delay by the millions of people stuck in traffic, each due to a costly human error, and the economic case becomes obvious.

Robot cars will make mistakes at first, but every time they do, their software will be altered to make repeating that mistake impossible. You can't do that with human drivers.

Goodbye freedom

There will be tradeoffs. As one chum mentioned, it will be nice to sit with your legs crossed reading a book while you make your way through a traffic jam and only take the wheel once you hit the open highway.

But once most cars are run by almost infallible robot drivers, who will want some yahoo swerving in and out of traffic?

You will lose a bit of your freedom, the world will lose a few more jobs, but you and your children will be less likely to die on the roads.

One day we will laugh to think about humans being allowed to do something so dangerous. Aging boomers, take note. When grandma's eyes aren't so good, she won't lose her driver's licence.

I think this week we are watching the beginning of the end of the motorist, at least the kind of motorist who actually turns the wheel and pushes the pedals and buttons. And as much as anything, the reason is economic.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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