Heedless, In A Mirror Blackly

Jaywalking, Manhattan-style, the 1970s. Transgressions against civic order this small were leavened by the five murders a day the NYPD had on its hands in those years. In midtown, even the well-dressed joined the scofflaws.

The phrase “jaywalker” doesn’t begin to describe the suicidally aggressive people ubiquitous in the streets of downtown LA at night in 2018.

They lollygag across thoroughfares with their back to oncoming traffic. They lurk between lanes in the unlit portion of the block, clad in dark clothing head to toe, arguing with ghosts. Dark shapes shamble through dark backgrounds, towing crazy, shadow dancing in headlights, drug sweaty, angling for insurance payouts.

My biggest fear as an Uber driver has never been robbery. It’s clipping one of these guys and spending the next year fighting in court. They’re a menace and the City has granted them dominion. It no longer issues tickets on Skid Row as the recipients would never pay them. Unpaid tickets add up to bench warrants. Bench warrants require jail time. And jail is the states most valuable commodity. It won’t part with a bunk for less than a felony. Besides, the whole business of citing unsafe behavior is now racist and classist. We can’t have that. Our feral metropolis is Woke.

Into this heedless breach approaches our near future of headless Ubers. The case for Autonomous Vehicles is offered as a fait accompli, first as freight, soon as rideshare. Ecce technocratic determinism!

Progress™ suffered its first casualty this week in Tempe, Arizona. The victim, a homeless woman pushing a bike laden with plastic bags across a boulevard at night. The car had a human backup driver ready to seize the wheel in just such an eventuality, but she was otherwise occupied. It was a well-lit suburban arterial with no traffic. The victim managed to find the shadowiest spot from which to emerge, then proceed heedlessly into the path of an oncoming Volvo going 40mph.

And so we have reached the Black Mirror inflection point.

1) Let us tell it like it is: the Safety Operator is merely a psychological prophylactic. Human backups won’t hit the brakes in a pinch any faster than the autonomous functions will. Their role is theatrical; to look purposeful and not text behind the wheel. Whoops.

2) the Futurists can site the slow/non reaction of the backup driver as confirmation of the supremacy of AV technology. Human negligence kills 30,000 people a year, sayeth the mantra. Refusal to adopt transformative change is unsound reasoning. Luddite.

3) the beta-testing cities are now playing the role teaching hospitals do in the medical profession: patients/riders as guinea pigs. To paraphrase Atul Gawande, without teaching hospitals there cannot be doctors, including himself. Would he allow his own children to be treated at one? Never.

4) In 2015, Arizona declared itself a regulatory haven in order to attract testing operations from self-driving car companies. Other states will follow suit, competing for the business.

You can see where this is going. Robotics will force moral dilemmas we are hard-pressed to answer individually, which renders them all the easier to ignore collectively. The auto fatality rate will become our moral calculus. As long as it ticks down each year, the “robotics is preferable to people” ethos will prevail.

Which means self-driving Ubers are headed for the Serengeti of Skid Row Los Angeles and an inevitable paso doble with its peripatetic residents. If you were looking for a natural laboratory for perfecting the kinks in the autonomous backup braking systems you couldn’t do better.

As a driver I’m not sure who to root for.