Country Mice, City Mice, and Autonomous Vehicles

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
country mice city mice and autonomous vehicles

The autonomous vehicle is coming. Everybody says so. Or at least everybody who is paid to be optimistic about the fascist-corporate future of the Western World says so. Autonomous vehicles are already so safe that the only risks come from the imperfect humans surrounding them. The Times regularly fawns over the autonomous vehicle in the same vaguely insincere, Backpfeifengesicht-smirking way it concern-trolls about suicide-by-firearm. The problem, you see, is with all the people out there. They’re too stupid to drive a car or handle a gun and the only solution is for their betters in the $100M Manhattan condos and too-precious San-Fran Nob Hill homes to keep them dosed with soma and distracted with Centrifugal Bumblepuppy during the two and a half hours a day they’re not supposed to be either working in their ping-pong-table-equipped offices or sound asleep.

I’ve spent much of the past week reading about the near-perfect safety of the autonomous roadways of the future. As fate would have it, I spent much of the week before that driving a few hundred miles’ worth of fast back roads in an assortment of very fast sports cars. After spending some time considering what I’ve read and what I’ve been doing in a sort of holistic fashion, I’ve come to believe that the safety of autonomous vehicles, like many other technical and social issues in the United States, comes down to the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse.

The fable of the two differently-domiciled rodents has changed over the past few centuries to become an example of how no situation is ideal and no individual set of tastes can be held to be superior, but it was originally meant to illustrate how there was no security or constancy in an urban existence. The pace of change has always been faster in the city. The city is its own frontier. Its great adventure is not exploration, but existence.

But the city, by its very nature, has to restrict freedom of behavior, thought, expression, and movement. It requires a form of tyranny simply to exist. To use the old expression, my freedom to swing my fist ends at your face, and in the city there is always another face just inches away. So the people who live in those cities must of necessity learn to constrain their behavior and that mindset, the mindset of subordination to the communal good, eventually becomes as natural to them as a cage does to a captive-born bird. Only the truly wealthy are exempt, because they are both powerful and rare and therefore the city does not require their submission.

We are told that trains are safe and that we should take them whenever possible. Trains are safe for many reasons, but the primary reasons are that they operate on defined routes at defined times and are controlled by a small group of trained individuals. They are subject to tyranny. Wasn’t it said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time? Trains are outstanding examples of how safe things can be when there is only one choice in the matter.

Turns out that buses are about three times as safe as cars, even if they are not as safe as planes. One suspects that, as with autonomous vehicles, many of the accidents affecting buses are due to the privately-operated vehicles surrounding them. My experience with Greyhound buses, at least, is that they run at 85 mph when it’s safe to do so and that their drivers are usually pretty sharp. Again, however, buses are subject to a sort of tyranny. Nobody just wakes up in the middle of the night and decides to drive a bus somewhere. If you want to ride the bus, you’ll submit to the bus company’s schedule and follow the route set by the bus company, unless you’re John Madden and have your own bus.

In the tyrannical environment of the modern city, with its low speeds and fixed grid and near-guaranteed availability of everything from GPS to 4G LTE to Wi-Fi to fiber, the autonomous vehicle is likely to excel. I’ve earned much of my living over the years writing computer programs to govern the behavior of various systems, from websites to robots, and I can tell you that the capability of the autonomous vehicle can be pseudo-coded as:

Capability = ((reliable location information) x (quality of rules programming) x (ability to accurately sense its surrounding environment))/(number of potential unknown unknowns)

That phase, “unknown unknowns”, is important. In the city, at 25 mph, the unknowns are known. There are only so many types of vehicles our little robot car will encounter, they can only behave in so many ways, and in any event the car can always stop. On the feeder freeways, the speeds will increase but the data will be good. The systems will know if there is ice on the roads or lanes closed ahead. The unknowns will be known and they will be easy to understand.

On a Tennessee backroad? You can encounter anything from a brown bear to a tractor-trailer carrying trusses for new homes and occupying both lanes over a blind hill. As you drive down the side of a mountain in the late fall, you might find that the road temperature is seventy degrees in the sun but there are patches of ice where new tree growth shades a hairpin corner and the rocks near it weep water from up the slope. There might be fallen rocks or unexpected holes in the asphalt. GPS coverage is spotty and there’s no data available. The roads might not even be completely mapped.

Business Insider recently came up with an interesting map. The counties shaded in blue contain half of this nation’s population:

I have every confidence that autonomous vehicles can be made to work in those blue counties. I believe that they will prove to be safe and efficient and, eventually, mandatory. After all, all the studies tell us that we can’t have the maximum safety benefit of robot cars until we get the Red Barchettas off the road.

What about the rest of the country, those purple mountain majesties above the fruited plains? Just like with 4G and fiber and Whole Foods supermarkets, they won’t be part of what William Gibson called the unevenly distributed future, at least not for a long time. The people in those grey counties already live different lives from their City Mouse blue-county relatives. They might own land, they might own dirtbikes, they might own guns, they might have the freedom to put their old refrigerators in the yard, they might have water from their own wells, they might have an uncomfortably long wait for an ambulance.

In the future, there will be yet another difference. The Grey People will have their own cars. They, and their children, will have a skill that will atrophy in, and eventually disappear from, their urban relatives the same way that some birds eventually lose the ability to fly due to evolutionary pressures. The Country Mice will be able to drive. Just think about that. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but the time will come when it will mean something. City Mice will be proud of their inability to drive the same way that they brag about not being able to operate an AR-15 or an impact wrench today.

We will be two Americas: one nation under the benevolent tyranny of the Google Car and one where even sixteen-year-old girls know how to drive an F-350 dually. One group that revels in its submission to the higher secular power of the transportation computer and one that will likely evolve a hypertrophied, distorted sense of independence.

What are the chances that those two nations, alike in dignity, will manage to get along?

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  • Domestic Hearse Domestic Hearse on Oct 07, 2015

    Even those with a country place outside the wire -- places no one knows about -- will eventually not be exempt from this dystopian future. The corpofascists shall also make the decisions for the country mice, sending their gleaming alloy air cars to enforce strict road compliance and also take our ARs and AKs away. "Stand high long enough and your lightning will come." William Gibson

  • -Nate -Nate on Oct 07, 2015

    Well hell ; I guess I'll just have to go hit the country back roads for two days then..... As of yet I don't know the route but hopefully at least partly on Trona Road , that's always fun , the view into The Panamint Valley is superb , just don't forget to mind those sharp asses curves =8-) . One of those places I dasn't dare run the car wide open . -Nate

  • Wjtinfwb Over the years I've owned 3, one LH (a Concorde) a Gen 1 300 and a Gen 2 300C "John Varvatos". The Concorde was a very nice car for the time with immense room inside and decent power from the DOHC 3.5L. But quality was awful, it spent more time in the shop than the driveway. It gave way to a Gen 1 300, OK but the V6 was underwhelming in this car compared to the Concorde but did it's job. The Gen 1's letdown was the awful interior with acres of plastic, leather that did it's best imitation of vinyl and a featureless dashboard that looked lifted from a cheaper car. My last one was a '14 300C John Varvatos with the Pentastar. Great car, sufficient power and exceptional highway mileage. The interior was much better than the original as well. It was felled by a defective instrument cluster that took over 90 days to fix and was ultimately lemon law' d back to FCA. I'd love one of the 392 powered final edition 300s but understand they're already sold out and if I had an extra 60k available, would likely choose a CPO BMW 540i for comparable money.
  • Dukeisduke Thanks Cary. Folks need to make sure they buy the correct antifreeze, since there are some many OEM-specific ones out there (Dex-Cool, Ford gold, Toyota red and pink, etc.).And sorry to hear about your family situation - my wife and I have been dealing with her 88-yo mom, moving her into independent senior living, selling her house, etc. It's a lot to deal with.
  • FreedMike Always lusted after that first-gen 300 - particularly the "Heritage Edition," which had special 300 badging and a translucent plastic steering wheel (ala the '50s and '60s "letter cars").
  • Dave M. Although the effective takeover by Daimler is pooped upon, this is one they got right. I wasn't a fan of the LHs, mostly due to reported mechanical, NVH and build quality issues, but I though Chrysler hit it out of the park with the LXs. The other hyped release that year was the Ford Five Hundred, which, while a well-built car with superior interior space, couldn't hold a candle to the 300.
  • Art Vandelay I always liked those last FWD 300's. Been ages since I've seen one on the road though. Lots of time in the RWD ones as rentals. No complaints whatsoever.