Dark comedy and driverless cars…

What do you do if you if you’re just a neutral onlooker in another country and want some light relief from the dark comedy of the USA’s Presidential Election? Explore the current world of driverless cars!  At least that’s what the Badger did when the unrelenting media and social media coverage just emphasised the sadness of seeing a superpower having a nervous breakdown over two old men while struggling to come to terms with the threat to it’s world dominance from the powerhouse that’s modern day China.   As Richard Holway put it in a recent TechMarketView post, if these two men are the best candidates to lead the Western world then there is something seriously wrong!  

The dark comedy is not over yet and there will inevitably be a Netflix film in due course, so the Badger’s attention was easily redirected into the realm of driverless vehicles where technology evangelists have been promising for years that completely driverless cars will take over the roads. You’ll find a neat summary of the different levels of autonomous vehicle here. It’s Level 5 vehicles that are fully autonomous and can go anywhere with the presence of a driver completely optional and various companies and organisations are progressing vehicular technology along the path towards this holy grail. Progress is slowly being made and each year more automated assistance aids are finding their way into new vehicles, but that doesn’t mean Level 5 vehicles will be in widespread general use by us, the general public, on our roads in the foreseeable future.  

Why not? Because a) they aren’t in widespread military use yet, b) as this AutoExpress item points out, drivers haven’t been asked if they actually want completely autonomous cars, c) idealists are having to become more realistic, and d) legislation, liability apportionment, and insuring autonomous cars are still work in progress. It’s pretty safe to think that we’ll be driving vehicles ourselves for some decades yet.  The technology will continue to advance but history shows it’s the transition and transformation from a long established way of doing something to something new and different that presents the greatest challenge. People don’t change behaviour quickly, especially if they feel something is being imposed. So far there’s little information available on how driverless vehicles will be introduced for us to use in a way that preserves our freedoms, builds trust, and changes attitudes and behaviours. That’s why the Badger agrees with the AutoExpress item’s conclusion that the driverless car is a vehicle that 99% of us would happily live without!

The rollout of Level 5 driverless vehicles to the public is decades away and it’s likely to be another dark comedy if the Smart Meter and Smart Motorway programmes are anything to go by. Oh dear.  The phrase ‘dark comedy’ is emerging as a common theme in the modern world. Let’s hope things don’t morph from this into ‘horror’…

The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

Anything ‘Smart’ or New Technology always has a downside…

A one-liner that’s obviously true. All things ‘smart’ and new technology have pros and cons for both individuals and for society. History shows, however, that we only really pay attention to the cons when they bite us. When they do, attitudes change and what was a norm can quickly become a pariah. Plastic illustrates the point. Although first invented around 1860, mass adoption took off in the 1950s and today plastic is everywhere in our life. Recently, however, we’ve realised the danger from the ~8.3bn tonnes is in landfill or polluting the world’s oceans and so the world is now quickly moving away from this non-degradable material. Big UK supermarkets, for example, are now significantly reducing its use in packaging.

So, what triggered the Badger to focus on this one-liner truism? The trigger was a ‘permanently connected’ teenager’s tantrum which happened when the Badger was reading about the cons of ‘Smart Motorways’ (see here and here, for example). The tantrum arose from the perfect storm of their smartphone battery expiring just as a power cut knocked out internet access at home. Much teenage wailing about the end of the world ensued. The Badger unsympathetically pointed out that the teenager hadn’t actually died has a result of becoming ‘disconnected’. Thereafter a sensible conversation took place about how the world has changed since the Badger was a youngster, and the importance of thinking about the cons of using today’s online technology.

Badger described how he was raised on eggs, bread, butter, bacon, cabbage, sprouts and spuds, and how he played outside in the dirt, climbed trees, gathered tadpoles from ponds in jam jars, and watched a TV with only two channels and no remote control. There was no phone, no electronic calculator, no tablet or laptop, and music came from a radio or vinyl records. The Badger did a paper round, walked to school, did jobs at the weekend, and played football with mates on a local green whenever he could. Fish and Chips was the only takeaway food, shops closed for a half-day mid-week and all day on  Sunday. The Police were respected and so was independence and privacy. None of this stopped the Badger having a rewarding career in IT, or being a balanced, law abiding citizen!

The Badger told the teenager he was pro ‘smart’ and new technology when it respects an individual’s privacy and fulfils a true need in a person’s life, and he suggested the teenager think about a) the tech they use, why, and its cons, b) their privacy, and c) how they would live without a smartphone, tablet or laptop because they would indeed continue to live without them!

The conversation ended as soon as power returned restoring connectivity. The teenager then took a call from a friend. The friend was told that the teen wouldn’t be downloading a new app that ‘everyone else is using’ because they didn’t need it and they wanted to think about privacy and its cons. Result! The teenager had been listening after all…