The Ultimate Piece of “Positive Technology”? The Driverless Car!

Traffic Jam

Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yesterday, I did something that I have done just twice this entire year: I drove a car.

I was booked to give a talk in a smalller city near the North Sea coast and had to drive up there for about three hours. As I do not own a car, I had to rent one and then took to the famous German Autobahn. Yes, you´ve read correctly: I´m a German man and I don´t own a car. And in fact, I´ve never had one and I probably never will in this life.

And yesterday, I was powerfully reminded of why this is the case: because it´s a stupid waste of time. I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them (or the empty road if things go well). How many books could be read in that time? How many blog posts or love letters could be written? How many business plans could be created?

I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them.

Ok, not each and every country has the same quality public transportation system as Germany does (I take busses, trains, and the occasional cab to go basically everywhere). And yes, I do concede some people have fun while driving. Supposedly, it gives them a sense of freedom and being in control. And yes, driving a car, you can listen to music, you can make phone-calls using a hands-free kit, and you could even see driving as a mindfulness exercise – but let´s be honest here: how many people really do this on a regular basis? It´s no surprise that CEOs and other “VIPs” typically have a chauffeur. Their time is seen as too valuable to be driving a car. But isn´t that true for all of us?

That´s why I believe that driverless cars will be one of the most important pieces of (positive) technology to hit the market in the near future. Yes, it´s not that far away. If you´re interested, please check out this superb article that´ll tell you that they are already driving around on our streets, at least in some parts of the USA – and they are already (at least) as safe as the average human driver.

The point of market entry can and will be postponed by a couple of years, mostly because of juridical problems in the context of accountability (Who´s responsible when a driverless car causes an accident?) – but as always, those things will be worked out at the end of the day. Market entry will probably be postponed by the car manufacturers themselves, because they will – ironically –  be the biggest losers in this game (and that´s some very bad news for Germany, as millions and millions of jobs depend on the automotive sector). But it´s going to happen.

Here´s what we´re going to see in my imagination: Google will buy Tesla and afterwards Uber. Google has the navigational data and the necessary technologies in robotics and visual detection, Tesla has premium eco-friendly cars and especially the battery technology, and Uber will supply the reservation system. Of course, there could be lots of other contestants, but I don´t think this stunt can be pulled of by small start-ups – there´s too much money involved in R&D.

So, why is all of this bad news for car manufacturers?

Because personally owning a car is one of the most inefficient things a lot of us do. Cars that are not commercially used just stand around at least 90% of the day. And when we use them, we use them inefficiently. We´re driving alone most of the time instead of using up all of the available space, and we´re bad drivers in the sense that we do not take the shortest available route, that we create traffic jams, and so on. So basically, once the technology will be market-ready, the demand for cars is going to plummet to (my personal estimation) some 20% percent of the current level within a couple of years. This is also consistent with most surveys of Gen Y – most of them want connected and flawless mobility, but do not want to own a car. We will need to have a sufficient supply of driverless cars and they will have to be replaced regularly because they will be used almost without rest periods. And of course, some people still will want to own a car – just because. But otherwise, there´s going to be a lot less of them. And believe me, this is very(!!) good news for mankind, except for the automotive industry (and cab/truck drivers, probably).

Driverless driving means

  • more efficient usage (less standstill, more car sharing, always use of shortest distance etc.) = less cars = less use of fossil fuel/less pollution and other natural resources (this also pertains to the manufacturing process);
  • saver travel as driverless cars will produce far less accidents. More than 30.000 people are killed in the USA per year in car accidents. Most of those are caused by human error. Driverless cars will overlook fewer objects and they will also communicate with each other. This will not only minimize accidents but will also more or less eradicate traffic jams – as cars will be driving in a kind of convoy and otherwise, actively try to avoid crowded routes;
  • less stress and burnout and other health-related issues (see this Time article for an overview over negative effects of commuting);
  • massive unharnessing of human consciousness as people will be able to concentrate on more productive issues that steering a car from A to B.

The biggest hurdle to take (apart from the juridical challenges mentioned above) is the quality and cost of the visual detection unit that ensures the autonomous car does not hit other objects. The one that Google uses right now for their projects supposedly costs around 80.000 US$ per unit. But if you take a look at, e.g., the development of the cost for computer storage over the past decades, you basically know it´s just a matter of time until a system will be available for the mass market.

TV, Flow, and the Waste of Human Consciousness

A couple of days ago, I finished The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and wrote a short article on the idea that unlimited choice can make us miserable. In the meantime, I picked up a true classic of Positive Psychology: Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi* (actually, it was written about 10 years before Seligman and Csíkszentmihályi coined the term Positive Psychology). Now there are some interesting parallels in those two texts, namely on setting boundaries for oneself to enjoy more freedom and thus to experience order in consciousness (which is one definition of Flow).

By Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia Commons

By Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia Commons

I have a full-time job as a manager, I work as a coach on the side, teach at a business school, study in the MAPP, run several blogs and publish articles in practitioner journals very regularly – and I am a husband and a father. Therefore, people often ask me about my time management. The truth is: I may be somewhat of a workaholic (in a positive sense) and I do not regularly get those eight hours of sleep that my body craves for. But the other side of the coin is: I do not waste any of my time! There simply are a lot of things that I choose not to do – even though I know I would immensely enjoy them.

Let´s see what Csíkszentmihályi has to say on what could be called ‘fake flow’:

“[I]nstead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.”

Enter Barry Schwartz:

“But if unrestricted freedom can impede the individual’s pursuit of what he or she values most, then it may be that some restrictions make everyone better off. And if “constraint” sometimes affords a kind of liberation while “freedom” affords a kind of enslavement, then people would be wise to seek out some measure of appropriate constraint.”

I intuitively threw out my game console at age 14. Back then, I spent day after night after day playing strategy games like ‘Sim City’ or ‘Civilization’, which is totally fine – for a teenager. The thing is: I´m pretty sure I´d still do it today. Those games fulfill the requirements for a flow experience to a very high extent (goal clarity and immediate feedback, high level of concentration, balance between skills and challenge, feeling of control, effortlessness, altered perception of time, melting together of action and consciousness, autotelic quality).

But it is not the real McCoy. It does not get things going in the real world. And while I would never argue that playing is not for grown-ups, as always, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Same thing with watching TV: I know there are a lot of absolutely great TV series out there. I´m positively sure I would immensely enjoy ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’, and all the other Emmy-winning masterpieces out there. That´s why I have never watched a single episode. I choose not to be immersed in those artificial worlds. I feel my life is fascinating enough.

Let´s hear Csíkszentmihályi once more:

“The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality.”

I take my hat off to the producers of those series. It takes a lot of effort and human consciousness to create them. But how much consciousness is lost by consuming them? I don´t like to squander mine. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Odysseus: sometimes, we need to be tied up in order to hear the music…

*If you´ve ever wondered how to pronounce his name in English: it´s something along the lines of ‘Me-High Chicks-Sent-Me-High’. 🙂