As I’ve said before, I’m one of those people who can’t wait for Google to take over driving for me. I would have a chauffer, which I couldn’t normally afford, to take me around everywhere, allowing me, as a passenger, to do whatever I want during the ride. I could read, eat, nap, play games, listen to music, watch movies. Sort of like the airlines, but in my own private space.
Even more, I can’t wait for Google to take over driving for other people. Google would smooth out the ride for everyone, optimizing traffic for the total system of all cars in use and road capacity available. Traffic jams would be ameliorated, and that aggressive-or-oblivious-but-certainly-annoying person always tailgating me would become an amusing historical artifact.
I don’t mean Google, of course, or only Google. Google is just a proxy for any large technology company that will ultimately provide a system approach to private transport. It could be IBM, Microsoft, General Motors, or even Apple. But Google is furthest along in development of driverless cars and has Google Earth, Google Maps, and Waze as major pieces of the puzzle.
But as I got to envisioning this utopian future in which I’m relieved of the tensions involved in driving my own car, I began to think about some of the other implications of such a development. And at least some of the scenarios were a bit disturbing. We should step carefully into this new world, lest we end up in a dystopia aspects of which George Orwell would surely recognize.
A bit of context: The Internet of Things (IoT) will bring online many little nodes that barely exist today. Once low-power Bluetooth incorporates IP addresses, all these little nodes — things like in-store beacons, your refrigerator, your home security system — will be able to talk with any other on the Internet. And there will be big nodes as well, things like your house and your car, each of which will be composed of many smaller nodes. For example, your Bluetooth-enabled tires will be able to talk to your in-car control system, issuing a warning when tire pressure is low.
So, imagine your car as a big node made up of lots of little nodes. Naturally, it will be in touch with cloud-based traffic and navigation services, and it will also have general connectivity for you to use as you wish — for movies, Web surfing, telephony, and other purposes.
Today, Google’s Waze division gathers traffic information from all the enabled systems out there and broadcasts that data back to all the nodes so that drivers can make optimal routing decisions. In the driverless world, the car’s control system, rather than the human driver, will make use of this information. Although Waze uses the information collectively and anonymously — that is, it collects your individual data and combines it with data from other cars to produce a traffic-congestion map — technically, it does know where your car is. Like many of the value propositions offered by Google, the individual gives up certain personal information in order to take advantage of some collective value. But that also means that “the system” will always know where your car is.
Turning to General Motor’s OnStar division, the one that provides vehicle security via cell connection to the Internet, one realizes that a car can be identified with a particular person.
Now, let’s bring on the horror factor. Remember when Michael Dell discovered that his kids were tweeting where and when the uber-wealthy family was meeting for dinner? If hackers could get into this future hypothetical driving system, they could find the rich people in traffic and sell this information to fleets of criminal motorcyclists who could hijack the cars of valuable individuals, perhaps kidnapping them for ransom. The motorcycle fleet could just wait near the off-ramp of a major highway and harvest victims pretty much at will.
And hackers can always get in, no matter what type of security there is. Every citadel has pipes coming in and going out — for water, sewage, trusted people, and other utilities. All that’s necessary for entry is to compromise one of these pipes. I’m reminded of how, despite the vast investment in the Great Wall, Genghis Khan was able to get through it simply by buying off one of the guards at the gate, allowing him to sack Beijing.
All this is not to say that I don’t want Google driving my car. I still do. But as I think through some of the scenarios that could play out in such a world, I hesitate ever so slightly.