"We live in an age in which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist---or perhaps one ought to say, in which the individual is ceasing to have the illusion of being autonomous."
George Orwell, from the 1941 essay "Literature and Totalitarianism," from the collection "My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943"
This past weekend, talking to a couple of taxi buddies, Loon and Ted, both separately mentioned the issue of autonomous or self-driving cars and how they might or will affect us, we the erstwhile cab driving cabbies. Both felt that the advent of such transportation was nigh, Ted saying he expected to see them operational in a mere five years.
During both conversations I voiced skepticism that the United States was anywhere close to that kind of driving revolution, and an article by Mike Monticello in the May 2016 edition of "Consumer Reports, "The State of the Self-Driving Car," pretty much backing my contention. Speaking to Loon, I said that we were at least 20 years away, and probably much further than that, if ever, before these cars become more than theoretical discussion.
What I told Ted, and I believe to be totally true, is that the "self-driving car" scenario has been intentionally inserted in the cultural conversation by those who will profit from this so-called positive technological innovation. If you think I am buying into yet another conspiracy theory, consider this quote from the article's introductory pages:
"Google isn't looking to become a car manufacturer, though. Rather, the online-search company wants its software to be the electronic brains of cars built by established automakers."
This concept and approach might sound to familiar to us who are confronting Uber and Lyft, companies utilizing technology that is used by other others, thus reducing risk while enhancing maximum profits. While never saying there aren't some well intentioned individuals at Google and other companies, I say it is a wrong-headed approach because self-driving cars takes away responsibility and autonomy (and accountability) from the individual, transferring it to technology instead of teaching people to be functional and skillful drivers.
The attitude being preached is that humans are fallible, will always remain fallible, and since the human species is hopeless, let technology save the dumbbells from themselves. It is the "why-chop-with-a-knife" philosophy when instead you can now use a food processor? Why tire your brain (and hands) when technology can do the work for you? Yes, why copulate when you can alternatively impregnate your wife utilizing a sperm bank, even using your own sperm? You like that technological solution? I bet not!
Another quote succinctly spells this out, saying that the human species are a hopeless lot, and only technological intervention will save us from ourselves:
"We have 1.2 million people killed worldwide, 33,000 killed in the US per year; that's incredible," says Google's Chris Urmson. "The 33,000 number is comparable to a 737 falling out of the sky almost five days a week, which would be completely unacceptable in air travel."
Urmson should have added that annually worldwide 50 million are also injured in car accidents. No one, and certainly not me, will deny that American roadways are insanely dangerous due to incautious driving. As I have said to passengers many times before, "The only terrorists I meet are on the roadways, trying to kill you and me and everyone else." But, isn't the real question posed is just why IS this current reality, and can anything be done to alter what is occurring on America's highways?
To me the answer is fairly simple. As in any task, one must be fully trained and prepared before you are deemed ready. If you are going to be a physician, you are facing a minimum of five to seven and even more years of intense medical training. Another example is the budding concert pianist who usually starts playing the piano during early childhood, and maybe, just maybe, once reaching their mid-twenties, completely ready for Liszt and and the concert stage.
But to drive a car in the United States most people receive maybe 20-40 hours of actual road training ( if that) before taking simple written tests and perhaps a 15-30 minutes road test which then allows them to enter the most dangerous man-made environment the world has ever known save active warfare, but statistics say driving is even more hazardous than bombs exploding round your head. Nice thought, isn't it?
That 33,000 driving death figure is in fact a vast improvement, the USA once averaging 40-50 thousand auto-related deaths annually. During the Korean War, America suffered over 23,000 deaths during a three-year span. Over the 15-year span of the Vietnam War, America lost 55,000 plus soldiers. So let us begin doing some simple math. 2 times 33,000 is 66,000. 4 times 33,000 is 132,000. 10 times 33,000 is 660,000, which more or less matches the total deaths occurring during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
Given these horrific figures, why has American high school driving training been eliminated from most school districts? Why is driving treated as just another simplistic task equal to walking down the sidewalk? You can see why none of this making little if any sense. If you thought all this loss of life was something that needed to be addressed, logic dictates society would be doing everything necessary to end the crisis. Billions have been put toward cancer research but only mere hours are given to individual driver training. Is this either reasonable or sane? I would say not.
So what is interesting is that instead of taking the relatively cheap option of training all potential drivers properly, instead we have all this talk of a very complicated technological change that will cost untold billions to create and bring into reality. The required 3D mapping will take decades to complete. And why is 3D mapping necessary?
Instead of me providing the answer, I suggest that everyone do the proper research and reading before repeating the now popular mantra, "We will all be in self-driving cars soon!" What happens if the American electricity grid fails?. Or all those orbiting GPS satellites fall out of the sky? And onto your soft heads!
Why, I ask, does everyone think that our current infrastructure is lasting and sustainable? Has anyone given this serous thought? Knowing the human animal like I do, I strongly doubt it. Why think when you can instead dream of yet another magical technological solution to brighten your future day, thinking requiring effort while dreaming is easy. All you have to do is go to sleep. Would you like a pillow? Just please remember to place it beneath your head and not upon your face and nose, breathing one unavoidable necessity.
And the reason I quote Orwell should be obvious, having warned in his writings about people either being fooled by prevailing authority, or even worse, willingly giving up their personal autonomy by cooperating with the cultural status quo, be that 1930s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or in the United States 2016. I am currently reading a book that talks much about societal failure, "A Brief Stopover On The Way From Auschwitz," by the Swedish writer, Goran Rosenberg. I will be buying copies to give to friends. Going along then isn't always the best choice. And that of course is a mild understatement.
Immersion: Yellow's New Call Center---Dealing with the Ding-Dong Cabby
Frustration is clearly the best word to describe the Las Vegas call center's initial introduction into the ever chaotic world that is Seattle taxi. Having personally dealt with a dispatcher's over reaction on Monday afternoon, it is evident, after talking to two call center supervisors, that they feel desperate dealing with a large percentage of feral cabbies who just won't do the simplest of taxi tasks: making sure they get the passenger into the taxi.
I know it sounds strange but too many drivers fail to do the obvious like calling the passenger or, if the pickup is a house, to get their lazy butt out of the cab and knock upon the door. Why they do this is sometimes puzzling to the outsider but an explanation, or a series of reasons, at least of a kind, does exist. While not justifying a driver's stupid and truly self-defeating behavior, they do have their reasons however inane or distorted or illogical they might be.
The biggest number one reason these individuals fail to pickup the passenger is that they are not taxi drivers at all but only posing, pretending to be what they are not. Even the most dedicated cabby is someone who would rather be doing something else. The daily stress alone is enough to kill the average elephant so when someone is inserted beneath the top-light minus a second of real training and orientation you get what Las Vegas has discovered---a species of worker insolent, ill-tempered and rude. And given this very bad beginning, they develop contradictory habits that only become more entrenched as each taxi year slogs by.
Furthering worsening their attitude is the current deterioration of business, especially easy business, the kind served up upon the taxi platter at the train station. Why go out and hunt for your next customer when instead you can stand around, gossip with your cabby cronies, and then reluctantly get back into the cab, doing everyone the huge favor by pulling forward and picking up the waiting passengers?
I will say that in today's ever more competitive business environment, even after having a good attitude and working hard hunting down that next fare, there is no sure guarantee of success. Last Saturday morning I went a full THREE hours without a fare, the first time ever that has happened in nearly 29 years plying the streets.
And since I do know what I am doing, you can guess what happens to the taxi rookie. They go absolutely nuts, and in their panic, driving dispatch, as I said, to extreme frustration, not understanding why these guys are constantly screwing up what, as I said, is the relative simple business of getting the passenger into the cab. But, as I said a few sentences earlier, over-reaction will only inflame what is occurring, making the sulky cabby even less responsive, if that can be imagined!
Current dispatch response in part has been to either send out threatening messages to the perceived recalcitrant taxi fleet, or in some cases, actually de-authorize drivers 30 minutes off the dispatch system. I advised instead that both Yellow and Las Vegas explore what legal options exist before proceeding even further down a questionable path.
Of course I have suggested to Yellow more times than I can remember to please clarify what they legally can and cannot do when working with independent contractors who clearly ARE NOT in any way, shape or form, employees. That Yellow has never done this says much about the failures centered around the City of Seattle mandated association system.
And if you think the City of Seattle is interested in finding solutions, you are fantasizing because Seattle's City Council, in all of its lack of wisdom, has eliminated almost all "hands-on" training. While the previous training efforts were deplorable, what is left is insane, putting drivers out there who cannot find 38th and East Olive. I know this because this past Saturday a Fremont Olympic doorman personally walked up to my taxi and asked, "Do you know how to get to this address?" after the Farwest cabby gave up, this after the out-of-town passengers told him they had no idea how to get there.
Las Vegas has both the City of Seattle, King County and Yellow to thank for the mess they have been given. But corporal punishment is not the answer. I might have some solutions but will anyone truly cooperate? Stay tuned, as I often say. It would be great to have some kind of resolution before January 2017, and that my friends, might be wildly optimistic.
Gunter Grass poem
Since I have been writing about perceived realities I will end with this incredible statement by the author of "The Tin Drum."
In The Egg (German title---Im Ei)
We live in the egg.
We have covered the inside wall
of the shell with dirty drawings
and the Christian names of our enemies.
We are being hatched.
Whoever is hatching us
is hatching our pencils as well.
Set free from the egg one day
at once we shall draw a picture
of whoever is hatching us.
We assume that we're being hatched.
We imagine some good-natured fowl
and write school essays
about the color and breed
of the hen that is hatching us.
When shall we break the shell?
Our prophets inside the egg
for a middling salary argue
about the period of incubation.
They posit a day called X.
Out of boredom and genuine need
we have invented incubators.
We are much concerned about our offspring inside the egg.
We should be glad to recommend our patent
to her who looks after us.
But we have a roof over our heads.
chatter all day
and even discuss their dreams.
And what if we're not being hatched?
If this shell will never break?
If our horizon is only that
of our scribbles, and always will be?
We hope that we're being hatched.
Even if we only talk of hatching
there remains the fear that someone
outside our shell will feel hungry
and crack us into the frying pan with a pinch of salt.
What shall we do then, my brethren inside the egg?
from the German translation by Michael Hamburger,
taken from "20th Century German Poetry, An Anthology,"
edited by Michael Hofmann,
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux