Vehicle Platooning

Posted: January 23, 2011 in Consumerism, Technophilia

The Houston Chronicle reports (quite briefly) on Volvo’s new technology for creating an automobile road train system that uses wireless interconnectivity to join a series of enabled cars in autodrive behind a human-driven lead vehicle. The technology is also called auto platooning. Naturally, the gee whiz amazement factor extinguishes any possibility of actual critical analysis, as the author promises banal marvels while failing to offer any possible downside. Maybe he isn’t simply a shill, but he’s certainly not careful or thoughtful enough in his very few paragraphs to sound otherwise.

To borrow a theme from The Compulsive Explainer, why are engineers and technophiles so desperate to lose the self in the objects of our creation? At a time in history when perhaps we might feel, however inchoately, a need to reengage ourselves in the processes and responsibilities of modern life, we instead appear to be hurtling toward further disengaging ourselves, in effect remaking ourselves into mindless riders within the larger flow of technology, history, and culture. We may rationalize that diverting our attention here makes it more available there, but the truth is that there is often just distraction and idle entertainment. Further, by turning over control to external devices, we thus ensure that everything now happens to us, and we happily shoulder no responsibility for events.

The driverless car, or more properly, the car that drives itself so that its passenger(s) are free to do something else, is frequently sold as a safety innovation, since most auto accidents are attributable to driver error. Blaming driver error, while obviously true, is nonetheless fatuous, being akin to pointing out that most accidents occur when someone is behind the wheel. Well, ya think? But the dream of autodrive (autopilot transferred from planes to cars where the platoon is closer to a Blue Angels aerial formation than the wide open skies where autopilot is useful) is to remove the driver’s agency and therefore errors rather than make him or her a better, safer driver. It’s a technological innovation in search of a justification, because as this article in Popular Mechanics argues, safety is not improved by removing drivers’ attention but by engaging it more fully. (This is also one of the takeaways from GPS, which has caused more than a few zombie drivers to veer off-road when the computerized voice said “turn.”)

The obvious weaponization of vehicle platooning and its vulnerability to either catastrophic failure or malicious intervention (e.g., commandeering a car wirelessly) are eminently foreseeable. In fact, they have already been explored in the cinema, though that hasn’t stopped gobsmacked goobers from slavering, “kewl, when can I get one?” American culture has a long way to go before it learns from the Luddites the wisdom of evaluating technological innovation before embracing it. At our present moment, the attitude is more nearly “if you build it, they will come.” While thralldom to everything shiny and blinky and new has not yet proven to be universal (i.e., BluRay, 3D TVs, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissas Leaf have not yet gone fully mass market), it is still the default response to most technologies within our purchasing power.

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Comments
  1. Charlie Zero says:

    Excellent article here.

    Makes one wonder — why must man depend on such technologies if one day these machines might crash down.

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