Sure, Let's Stick Our Kids (Alone) in McDonald's-Sponsored Autonomous Vehicles. What Could Go Wrong?

You don’t have to hang around a tech evangelist for very long before you’ll start to hear some crazy things. Like, how we are going to use life-size stone Legos to build stuff. Or how we’ll have Internet on the moon (but not in rural America) by 2019. Or how we will implant the human brain with super-powered computer chips, thereby further separating the haves from the have-nots in a world already suffering from increasing inequality.

And that’s just Elon Musk.

I heard my own version of tech-evangelism last week during a panel I moderated on autonomous vehicles and the future of transportation. During a discussion about the benefits of autonomous vehicles, one of the panelists asked the audience to imagine a future where they no longer had to drop off or pick up their children from soccer practice. Instead, that child could call up an autonomous vehicle using their smartphone.

And, one of the other panelists noted, that vehicle may even be completely free, provided users are willing to watch ads throughout the ride and/or be willing to give up as-yet-unidentified data that the companies underwriting the “free” ride find valuable.

Imagine, the panelist said, a world with completely free, totally safe transportation for your child.

So, let’s imagine.

Let’s imagine a world where my daughter’s eyeballs are propped open as she’s being forced to watch an endless loop of McDonald’s commercials while 23andMe harvests her blood until the autonomous vehicle pulls into our driveway.  

(Okay, so that’s a little bit dramatic. But like Bruce Springsteen and Stephen King told me, nothing–nothing–is really free.)

Let’s imagine a world where a generation of kids already overwhelmed with technology and lacking meaningful face-to-face time with actual human beings is further cut off from parental contact, a world where the drive to and from the soccer field is a burden so great that it must be outsourced to a rolling Big Mac ad, a world where the faces of family are further replaced with ads for disposable garbage that neither these children nor the world at large needs more of.

I have three kids between ten and eighteen years old. I know the logistics of parenthood can be overwhelming. However, I also know that I sometimes learn the most about my kids on short drives around town. The idea of having an autonomous vehicle pick our children up from soccer practice speaks to a larger truth about our ever-growing relationship with technology, and that truth is the deeply flawed belief that just because we can do something means we should.

There will undoubtedly be a time when it is technologically feasible for your child to get driven home by a self-driving car. That possibility becoming a reality will be a huge technological advancement–but huge technological advancements do not always equate to positive gains for humanity.

An AR-15 is a huge technological advancement.

Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project was a huge technological advancement.

Of course, the autonomous vehicle is not an assault rifle or an atomic bomb. The development of the self-driving vehicle may create a safer, more environmentally sound future for a world that long ago became dependent on cars.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t place limitations on how that technology is used. Just because we might be able to get out of the awkward, forced conversation that occurs with our 12-year-old while we drive to and from soccer practice doesn’t mean we should.

Because of technological advancements we can watch movies, order food, and interact with our “friends” without ever actually encountering another human being.

We also live in a world that gets angrier and more polarized by the day.

In other words, let’s pump the brakes before we outsource the parent pickup line to the robots.


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