(Article changed on September 2, 2013 at 19:25)
Google is building a zombie!
You already suspected as much, didn't you?
It's true, and it's been right there all along, right under our noses. They haven't been trying to hide it; it's not a secret project. What not everyone has grasped -- even some of the engineers involved in the project -- is that it is, in fact, a zombie that Google is building.
They call it the "self-driving car." It's really a zombie.
by | El Caganer
Why?: It's simple. The car is dying. It should soon be dead. Not only because of the threat of peak oil and the desperate hunt for alternative fuel sources that will follow. Not only because all the alternative fuel sources we have come up with -- electricity, biodiesel, nuclear, etc. -- each have their own problems, and contribute in their own way to the destruction of the planet.
And it's not only because of that looming threat of ecological disaster that the car is dying. Well, actually that's a big one, let's dwell on that for a moment or two. The car is amazingly wasteful. It sucks down fossil fuel and belches out smog. It demands that we smear concrete -- itself a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the heat island effect which raises temperatures -- all throughout our cities, and in broad ribbons across our landscape. Cars are a major source of debt, and a leading cause of death in the United States. There are a gazillion reasons why we, as rational creatures, should abandon the car right away and turn to alternative modes of travel.
But we aren't rational creatures, so that isn't why the car is dying.
It is dying simply because it is no longer cool. And it is getting in the way.
The car was long the king of commodities, the leading artifact of a culture built around conspicuous consumption. The car, along with the house, was the carrot with which generations were enticed into the longterm indebtedness which in the US is known as "ownership." The act of driving became imbued with manly, individualist overtones; getting "the keys to the car" became a major coming of age rite, for young men especially. At the same time, the discipline inculcated through traffic systems conditioned drivers to the acceptance of a wide array of technologies of behavioral control, from the driving license, to the stop light, to the surveillance camera.
Cars communicated important messages about modernity to the consuming masses. Sociologist Jack Katz compared the car to a "miniature World's Fair" showing off the latest technological developments to awestruck consumers, while encouraging our faith in the narrative of inevitable progress fueled by consumption and economic growth.
That's all old hat now. The car has done its work well. In these recessionary times, the car has to compete for our attention and our pocketbooks with newer, hotter technologies. There's a new World's Fair in town, centered on ubiquitous, wearable devices -- smartphones today, glasses or wristwatches tomorrow -- providing constant social connectivity and interaction. The car gets in the way here. Old-fashioned thinkers criticize phoning and texting while driving as "driving distractions" but that is in fact backwards. Driving is the distraction now, for the new connected, conversing consumer.
Some theorists believe we have already passed "peak car," and that driving will only decrease from here on out. The mad scientists at Google are hoping otherwise. Their goal: to bring the World's Fair back to the car, by redesigning the car to fit the new consumer. The self-driving car is all about freeing the driver to become another passenger, freed from the mundane hassle to driving to tune in, turn on, or zone out to their heart's content. At the same time, the car itself will be integrated with all this technology, and absolutely state of the art. Getting into one will be just like stepping into the World's Fair.
Google -- with the help of a few close friends, such as DARPA -- is pouring a lot of money into the driverless car because they expect to gain a lot more money back from the unnatural afterlife of the zombie car. And there is an impressive amount of brainpower (zombies love brains!) and innovation going into giving drivers the freedom to tweet, text, and socialize to their heart's content instead of paying attention to the road.
Especially considering that the technology to enable this already exists, and has for a long time. It's called the train. And the bus. And yes, even the old-fashioned taxi, with an actual driver at the wheel.