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<nettime> Human at the Wheel
Jordan Crandall on Mon, 9 Nov 2015 09:36:51 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Human at the Wheel


A flurry of videos made by Tesla drivers has appeared on YouTube,
demonstrating the car's new Autopilot features. We see the road
through the POV of the (male) driver-author, who narrates the scene
in voiceover -- interpreting what the software is doing. Each clip
culminates in a "close call," with the implication that the software
is to blame ("Tesla Autopilot tried to kill me!" reads one headline).
In nearly every video, the driver is misusing the technology -- a
possibility the company had not apparently considered. Aghast at the
behavior of these drivers, Elon Musk announced that new constraints
will be added to the software "to minimize the possibility of people
doing crazy things with it."

Some companies developing self-driving cars imagined complete autonomy
right from the start. The majority aimed for some sort of middle
ground, where intelligent automobiles would work in conjunction with
their human drivers, learning from them and sharing operational tasks
as situations might demand. As testing has ensued, however, the view
from the automated cabin has not necessarily been kind to the organic
operators with whom the machine is now required to share the road,
the fleshy counterparts with which the algorithms must reason if an
efficient transport choreography is to be produced. Indulgent and
unruly, wildly incoherent and prone to error, these human drivers are
now being cast in a new light, devoid of the slack we tend to cut them
socially, as if the civilities had been seared away in the unwavering
glare of precision optics, only to reveal the brute form that lay
beneath.

The fact that the driverless vehicle's entire raison d'être is
avoiding the heedless moves that human drivers tend to make -- weaving
in and out of lanes, lurching into crosswalks, cutting off bicyclists,
barreling through intersections -- makes it all the more unbearable,
especially when they result in accidents that could have easily been
prevented. The most heinous of these acts, suffered by Google's fleet
of autonomous vehicles, is the rear-ender: the impetuous driver who,
failing to stop in time (likely due to fiddling with an Android
device), plows into the intelligent vehicle from behind. By far the
most common form of calamity that self-driving automobiles have
endured, it is one that undoubtedly incites indignity and anguish, due
not only to its incompetent nature but its utter unavoidability. Even
the most advanced machine is powerless to dodge it; the possibility
of its prevention hits a wall -- or rather, a windshield -- at the
optical portal of the command cabin, as long as there is a human
operator peering out from inside.

The task of accommodating this mortal element, no less addressing
it, is one that the logic of systems optimization -- informed by the
legacy of modern thought -- is primed to reject. The body remains
extricable from the machine, cognition from matter, and when push
comes to shove, there is no question what is to be done. If driving is
to be posed as a problem, rendered addressable in ways that software
can solve, then it is the wild-eyed, paradoxical human at the helm
that has to be trained properly or shown the door -- the indolent,
drooling body perched at the wheel, capricious, fearful, and prone
to distraction, easily riled by absurd, irrational needs, plagued by
quizzical resentments and mindless delusions. The sensible solutions
are algorithmic: logical operations unswayed by the vicissitudes of
corporeal life. It is a driverless vehicle after all.

The automobile is far from a logical construct; at the cultural
and operational level it is downright perverse. If there is an
irrational element at work, it is perhaps the expectation that it
should be otherwise. Contradictions are present at every level and
stack upwards from that point, each bridged with a compromise, a
compensatory trade-off that resolves the complexities immediately
below, stabilizing the mayhem that would otherwise require attention.
The rendering of the driver as supplemental to the transport
experience has been an incremental process, however the nature of the
driver's presence within the cabin becomes somnambulant or spectral.
Perhaps the rudimentary purpose of the motor vehicle, in its capacity
to move bodies from one geographical place to another, is undergoing
transition in tandem with some larger-scale reorientation of the
transport aim -- the automobile having at long last fulfilled the
level of self-determination anticipated by its prefix, though in the
paradoxical form of a machine once geared for transporting bodies,
which now attends to their needs in other ways, or attends to other
needs entirely.

J. C.





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