In a short interview a Dutch technology professor, Marieke Martens, said that within ten years we’ll have automatic driving cars on our roads, so cars that do not have a driver behind the wheel. This will not happen all at once, she says, but it will happen in five steps. In the interview prof. Martens didn’t say what steps these are, but the last step would be taken within ten years. Will it? Prof. Martens admitted that there are not only technical challenges for completing the project but also juridical ones, like questions of liability in case of accidents and how other road users will react. Well, I do not want to deny that we’ll see an automatic driving car here and there on the roads within ten years, but I seriously doubt that it will be more than that. Even more, I doubt whether the non-technical questions will be solved within ten years in the sense that we can have automatic driving cars on our roads, used by everybody who likes to have one, so in a non-experimental way or in a test project.
I think that the belief that we can have automatic driving cars on the roads within the short time of ten years – for ten years really is short in social life – is a typical instance of technological reasoning that ignores the human factor. Technological thinkers often forget that technological development and human development have their own dynamics and these do not need to go together. I will not go as far as Karl Mannheim does in his Man and society in an age of reconstruction – quoted in my last blog – that the social order must collapse if technological and social development are not in line with one another (p. 43), but I think that there is much truth in the view that human capacities often develop disproportionally and that new technological inventions can be applied only if they fit the human conditions of the application.
For example, Martens talks about five steps to the final introduction of automatic driving cars, so on the average two years for each step. What does this mean in practice? Take step one: A car must be produced according to this phase, the juridical rules must be adapted, drivers must be prepared that experimental cars can be met, and so on. Then, at the end of step one, the process must be evaluated. Only next we can go on to step two. Etc. till step five, in which finally automatic driving cars can move on the roads just as normally accepted means of transport like old-fashioned cars. I think that it is difficult to find social scientists who will say that all this can be done in five consecutive steps of only two years. Society is simply too complicated but also too “viscous” so to speak to function that way. Each person, each group, each sector of society has influence on the social phenomena they happen upon and has the potency to push them a bit in the direction preferred, to try to stop them (or just to let them ago), to give them another interpretation and meaning... And even if all these influences as such are minor, the total effect can be big and can cause often unforeseen effects. The introduction of automatic driving cars will be even more contemplated, if we realize that they’ll ride not only in the Netherlands but worldwide. In short: Human behaviour and even more social behaviour cannot be planned and manipulated like a machine. Just this is what technological thinkers often ignore.Sources: De Volkskrant, Sept 6, 2014, Sir Edmund Supplement, p. 5. Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.