Collage by Maggie Thrash.

Hello! In this month’s Tech Trek, Maggie gives us a rundown of the future of transportation—driverless cars—and Amber loves the vision of the World of Tomorrow.


Explore: Driverless Cars

Look ma, no hands!!! Last week, California proposed new regulations that would allow driverless cars on the road. California often leads the way in progressive legislation–think gay rights, immigration, climate change–and the rest of the country follows suit. As of now, most driverless cars are electric, which is good news for the environment if it means fewer gas-powered cars will be on the road. But they also pose tricky ethical dilemmas when it comes to accident prevention and shaping the future of America’s roads.

Most traffic accidents are caused by human error. Alcohol, speeding, and texting while driving lead to the majority of crash-related deaths in the U.S. With more driverless cars on the road, we should theoretically see a reduction in the overall amount of injury and fatalities. But the overall statistics may be overshadowed by the bad publicity around the very few cases in which the technology of a driverless car was at fault. Take, for instance, a fatal accident that occurred when a Tesla car’s computer registered a tractor trailer as a bright patch of sky and drove straight into it, killing the driver. This incident was splashed all over the media, overshadowing the fact that on the same day that one person was killed by a driverless car error, 90 people were likely killed in cars due to human error. For some reason, many people feel comfortable risking their lives driving with the sizable chance that a fellow human driver will endanger the road, but are outraged by the thought of a computer doing the same thing—even though the chances of that happening are much, much smaller. Pretty weird, huh?

There are other ethical factors. Consider the “trolley problem.” This is a classic thought experiment about whether it’s more ethical to allow a speeding train to kill several people, or to divert the train so that it only kills one person. Basically it’s about how we should or shouldn’t prioritize different sets of lives in life-or-death situations. Should a car’s computer be programmed to protect the passengers of the car at all costs? What if that involves swerving into a group of people on the side of the road? How does a computer make moral decisions about which lives to protect over others? Would different car companies have different (and proprietary) programs about who to save in a crash? It’s pretty nihilistic and morbid, but someone has to make these decisions and program them into the vehicle.

One way to solve these ethical problems is getting all human drivers, bikes, and pedestrians off the roadways, and to have a transit system that exclusively involves electric, driverless cars. The cars’ computers could communicate with one another, and traffic jams, accidents, and pollution related to gas-powered cars would become a thing of the past. But that isn’t happening anytime soon. It would involve fundamentally changing the way we think about cars. In the United States, especially to older generations, cars and driving equal freedom. It’s hard to imagine Americans giving up driving when they won’t even give up assault weapons. But the change is already underway. To younger generations, a car can feel more like a burden than a privilege. Insurance is expensive, parking is annoying, traffic is awful, and buying gas is not environmentally friendly. For many people, it’s more convenient to catch a Lyft, rent a Zipcar, or take public transportation.

I am super excited about the dawn of the age of the driverless car. I hate driving, I hate pollution, and I honestly believe a computer will keep me safer on the road than I or my fellow humans ever could. Maybe a Tesla will drive me off a cliff one day, but it’s far more likely that I’ll die in my Honda. —Maggie Thrash

Movie of the Month: World of Tomorrow (2015)

World of Tomorrow is one of those powerful, beautiful, inspiring films that you can’t let go of. I wanted to experience it over and over again. Directed by two-time Oscar loser (that’s how he describes himself) Don Hertzfeldt, World of Tomorrow is an animated sci-fi short film. It’s about a four-year-old girl named Emily Prime who is visited by a time-traveling adult clone of herself from 227 years in the future. Clone Emily tells child Emily about the “world of tomorrow”—a future where Emily Prime’s grandpa’s consciousness has been uploaded into a cube, robots write poetry, and people fall in love with rocks and fuel pumps. It’s a tomorrow that is equal parts tragic and hilarious.

The movie’s tone is interesting and unexpected, effortlessly shifting from existentialism to silliness. Explaining the connection between the two Emilys, Clone Emily says in a matter-of-fact monotone, “One day when you are old enough, you will be impregnated with a perfect clone of yourself. You will later upload all of your memories into this healthy, new body. One day, long after that, you will repeat this process all over again. Through this cloning process, Emily, you will hope to live forever.” To which little Emily says, “I had lunch today.” The whole movie is like that—thought-provoking and funny.

The animation is the stand-out element here, and what I immediately loved about this movie. The characters are stick figures, but they’re complex stick figures—very expressive and compelling. The animation style is unusual in the best sense of the word. It’s almost like an animated collage. Some things look hand-drawn, others look digital, and it all overlaps in gorgeous layers. Even if you aren’t into sci-fi, I’d recommend this movie just for the art. World of Tomorrow is about love, death, memory, loneliness, sadness, and quirky technology. It’s also about 17 minutes long and, yes, every second is great. —Amber Humphrey ♦