The Changing Culture of Cars

Sep 9, 2014

Still of Anne Baxter and Joseph Cotten in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The automobile has shaped American culture for more than a hundred years. So how will the coming, so called, driverless cars change us?  Or how will we change them? 

There are many questions about how this new mode of transportation would work. Some of them echo questions of an earlier age, the last time we made a transition in personal transportation.  

The 1942 film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” directed by Orson Wells is set in the early 20th century when the new horseless carriage was about to replace the horse as a mode of transit.

The transition to a faster mode of transportation is a metaphor for the conflict between valuing the past and embracing the future.  A similar conflict is just down the road for so-called driverless cars.

“First, there’s even a huge debate about the name itself. So should it be driverless, should it be autonomous should it be self-driving?,”  asks Milos Mladenovic, who just got his PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Virginia Tech. He says three technologies began to merge around the end of 20th century, paving the way for a car that can sense the environment around it, talk to other cars and make its own decisions.

But once we enter the next phase of human transportation, how would it work in the real world?

Milos Mladenovic

“For example, what if you now have a self driving vehicle and you don’t have to drive what’s going to prevent you from going to New York for a weekend, every single weekend and all of a sudden your spending much more fuel, or much more electricity in the future.”

In this scenario, you could text all you want, read, sleep even --- everything but pay attention to the white lines on the freeway.  

“Humans were never meant to drive we're not very good at doing a monotonous tasks for a long time and we lose attention, we get tired, distracted easily, so maybe this was just a transition phase for us as humanity.”

Connected Vehicles
Credit National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Lookout, because self-driving cars are coming.  They’re not available commercially yet, but they’re already being tested by technology companies and car makers.  However, universities are where researchers are examining how this would actually work in the real world and how a new culture of cars could change the way we travel.

One of the major selling points for the self-driving car has to do with human behavior. Impaired drivers account for more than thirty thousand traffic deaths in the US alone each year.

“This is our job in academia to influence the development of this technology,” says Milos Mladenovic, who just got  just got his PhD in engineering from Virginia Tech.  

“But the major push for this technology is coming from a lot of companies. So most of the development is solely driven with economic interest.  I don’t see it as the only source of inspiration for this technology.”

Mladenovic created an interactive survey for his PhD dissertation as way to get outside the scientific realm and bring in the human factor. The whole idea of a computer crash takes on new meaning when you’re talking about cars.

Anonymous Survey Participant: “It’s like when you’re trying to get through to someone on IT help and you just want to talk to a person and you can’t. You can’t explain to a computer.”

There were interviews and conversations, plus a simulated driving experience where people were asked to rate the priority of their trip using a point system.  That’s so a driverless car network could make choices about which vehicles to send first, in a lane change or intersection.

Anonymous participant: “It was interesting that they seemed to bring up the social aspect of - is my drive more important than your drive is my drive more important than the other person’s drive.  How do you balance all that out? And now there may be an ability to kind of do that.  Kind of a market place for how you drive through intersections. You know, who gets preferential treatment.”

Mladenovic based his points system on the idea that most people will cooperate, especially if they can get a reward. In his scenario people could store up points to use in emergencies. In his scenario, it’s social good for the majority rather than say, an economic weighting where people who spend the most would get the highest priority in traffic.

Anonymous Survey Participant:  “I went through like a hundred questions and it seemed to have a ‘dilemma zone’ where it knew you were getting close to being out of points or maybe not have enough points to get the highest priority. Let’s say that was ten points. It would let you get to right about 11 and then say, OK, you’ve got to go to the hospital.  Are you going to use all your points or not? And you really had to make that decision. So it’s always in the back of my mind that I need to save enough points for an emergency trip so I can move to the top of that priority list when I come to an intersection."

"A lot of people assume that people don’t know things but people know certain, things so when you have a lot of people brining up a perspective you get many perspectives and that’s really important for technology. I had 33 people that I interviewed and they all made similar points.

For some things like safety or what about hacking and things like that but each one of them brought up a different kind of thing.

"We used to, as a civilization we used to design technology on the basis of need or immediate need but now in the 21st century we should also look forward, not just to resolve current issues but to predict what  new issues we might create with this technology so we just don't keep fixing the problems but anticipate the problems and maybe prevent them."