Damned if You Do . . .

  • August 4, 2023

Perhaps the most Kafkaesque things about what is style “autonomous” or “self-driving” cars is that the driver is still regarded as the legally liable party when the “self-driving” car drives over someone.

Just ask Rafaela Vasquez, who has just pleaded guilty to being responsible for the death of Elaine Herzberg, who was killed when the “self-driving” Uber Vasquez wasn’t driving ran her over in March of 2018.

Vasquez was either asleep or looking at her phone rather than the road when Herzberg stepped into the path of the car.

But was this unreasonable?

It is certainly perplexing.

On the one hand, we have this assertion that cars such as the one Vasquez was driving have “self-driving” capability. In other words, the car touts the ability to drive itself. The plain meaning of the words. (Kind of like vaccine – which most people understood to mean something that immunized them.)

But it turns out that is not what the words “self driving” actually mean, because the driver is still expected – is legally required – to be ready to drive at all times. That is to say, the driver must keep his – in this case, her – eyes on the road, their hands ready to grab the wheel, their feet ready to apply the brakes. In which case, he – or she – is responsible for the car’s driving.

In that case, what is the point of having “self-driving” cars?

Put another way, if you can’t look at your phone – if you can’t take a nap – then all “self-driving” cars allow is for you to pretend you’re not driving.

They are analogous to airplanes with autopilot – an aviation term pilfered by Tesla to describe its “self driving” cars – in that the pilot/driver is still responsible for whatever the vehicle does. But it’s also different in that airplanes generally fly strictly defined, predictable routes and are usually under constant supervision by air traffic control. The pilot may step away from the controls for a moment for a pee break or nap, but there is usually another pilot there for just-in-case. In no case is the pilot allowed to take a nap if there’s no other pilot available to be there for just-in-case.

Driving – on the road – is much more fraught with variables than flying. The traffic situation is constantly changing and the unfolding, unanticipated possibilities are almost limitless and for that reason beyond the ken of “self-driving” programming parameters.

And this is precisely why the sellers of “self-driving” cars (and “self-driving technology”) make it very clear that the driver is responsible at all times for the operation of the vehicle. He must be “ready to intervene” – which he can only be ready to do if he (or she, as in the Vasquez case) is not looking at their  phone or taking a nap. It is not possible to be “ready to intervene” if you aren’t paying attention.

Full attention. Not partial, distracted, half-asleep, giving yourself a handjob attention. Yet the latter is precisely – paradoxically – what is encouraged by “self-driving” cars, by calling them that which they aren’t.

This is both deceptive and malicious in that it eggs on the person (wink, wink) to stop paying attention to their driving while at the same time holding them responsible for not driving. Thus, Rafaela Vasquez was charged with negligent homicide in the death of Elaine Herzberg for doing what everyone – including the companies that make and sell them – knows people who have “self driving” cars are going to do.

They are going to let the car drive itself.

And so she did.

And because she did, Elaine Herzberg is dead. And Vasquez has pled guilty to “endangerment,” a lesser but still serious charge that includes three years of supervised probation and the payment of restitution to the victim”s family and the insurance mafia that paid for some of the costs.

The cost of living with the fact that she ran over Herzberg is one Vasquez will have to bear for the rest of her life.

It’s an astounding thing. Or rather, the indifference of the government (and the “safety” lobby) is an astounding thing. The same government that will often insist if it saves even one life it’s worth whatever it costs is indifferent when lives are taken – by something the government has decided is worth more than “saving lives.”

The indifference to not only the dangers of “self-driving cars” but also the fact that the term is grossly misleading can probably be explained by the government’s finger-licking enthusiasm for taking people out of the driver’s seat. “Self-driving” cars aren’t “autonomous.” Those would be the cars under our control.

The ones that do what we want.

“Autonomous” cars will do what the programmers want.

We’ll be taken for a ride – literally as well as metaphorically. And if some people get run over along the way, it’s a price well worth paying – for those who will be in charge of taking us for that ride. . . .

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