Impressive, Autopilot, But No Thanks

It wasn’t too long after exercise bicycles were invented that people started noticing the irony of those who drive to the gym to run on a stationary bike. In modern days of automation and mindful meditation, the same folly applies to the office worker that gets stressed developing an algorithm to execute a boring task and save some time, only to later spend time mindfully executing some boring task to relax. By current expectations on the future of mobility, soon that office worker will automate a boring task in a car that self-drives to the gym, run on a stationary bike, then perform another boring task mindfully to relax, while the car self-drives back home.

Having a car that drives itself seems at first a good idea. Perhaps we could use the time to learn a new language, work on our startup, catch up with friends on social media, or take a nap. But here I want to argue for the default option: that we should be driving our cars, even if not required to.

To be fair, it’s not easy. On the practical side, traffic is chaotic, other drivers are aggressive, roads are badly maintained, and the commute is long. In terms of productivity and time management, given the pressures and anxieties of work, indeed often times we could use elsewhere the minutes we spend driving. A third major factor impacting the experience on the road is design: most popular cars are simply boring to drive — the few people who appear to be excited about their automobiles are those who can afford sleek, sporty models from a handful of Italian manufacturers.

Now Silicon Valley is determined to solve the problem of getting us some extra time, via automation, and perhaps by following Steve Jobs’ mantra that consumers don’t know what they want until it’s shown to them, it seems we collective agreed that self-driving is really a goal we should be spending a lot of brain power on right now — as if it would somehow solve one of the most pressing issues of our existence.

It will not.

While it would certainly be better to have the option of not driving, resources are scarce, and we do have to chose priorities. Just to stay on the same industry, how about bringing the development of engines based on renewable energy to the top of the agenda instead? Tesla should be making headlines for its electric engine, not for its autopilot software.

Entrepreneurs know that consumers are much more susceptible to arguments that benefit them personally (the ideal safety of an autopilot) than something vague and intangible (the environment). There are, however, major psychological benefits to be gained by driving, which we can tap into with just a bit of mindfulness, and self-control over road rage.

First, recognition and contemplation of our good luck. If we zoom out a little on the line of history, we see the miracle of science and engineering that is involved in pushing us across the surface of the Earth faster than any other human has done up until a mere century ago. While we still have to keep our hands at a circular interface in order to tell the machine exactly where to go, our ancestors had to pull ropes attached to various domesticated animals — none of which had air conditioning, cup holders, or GPS.

Second, if in the name of productivity we eliminate every possible chunk of idle time, when will we give opportunity to epiphanies to happen? The so called “shower thoughts” — which occur when we are relaxed, performing some rather boring task almost automatically— are some of the best sources of good ideas, provided we serendipitously pay attention. Obviously, one cannot be too relaxed on the road, but even this is good: the need to keep constant focus on a methodical task is a great way to tame a restless mind — precisely what mindfulness advocates argue for.

Third, in the chaos of modern life, when often we are made aware of how hard it is to have things happening as we’d like them to, the sense of control over a machine much heavier, stronger than us, brings a sense of power and confidence that we rarely encounter.

We do need cars that guard us from eventual mistakes, and certain people — for example, the elderly and disabled — would potentially benefit from full automation. But Silicon Valley and the auto industry are trying to tell us with a certain imperative attitude that we all need self-driving cars. We really don’t. What we need instead is to rethink driving, to be conscious of, and leverage the numerous therapeutic opportunities that it provides.

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