An Autonomous Vehicle Is A New Medium

“You can have many views of what a computer is. My particular view is that a computer is a new medium. (…) A computer will be in the future more looked at in this way — as a delivery vehicle for software.” — Steve Jobs in 1995.

For most, an autonomous vehicle (AV) is a car, but for me, it is a new medium — something that in the future will be seen as a delivery vehicle for software. It delivers software to you, and one part of its diverse software services is autonomous transportation.

In that respect, the term autonomous vehicle is as wrong as the term smartphone, because it does not describe in a proper way what we are doing with that device. Most of the time, we do not use our smartphones for phone calls anymore, but we still just refer to them as smarter phones. 

In the future, an autonomous vehicle will be a place where you work, eat, sleep, play, watch, listen, and surf the internet regardless of whether the vehicle transports you or not. The vast majority of its services are delivered through software; therefore, it’s a software delivery medium. 

Newspapers, television, radio, smartphone, or the internet have all been new media at some point in time, and all have been misunderstood and underestimated in their core services for years, sometimes for decades, after they appeared. All of them deliver information, communication, entertainment, and joy — and an autonomous Tesla delivers all of that plus transportation. It is a medium that delivers software like a computer because it is nothing other than a computer with a large battery on wheels. 

Whenever a new medium appears, we generally compare it with something we know, and with that fall back into old habits. Native Americans called the first horses they saw, long before the white men appeared, large dogs, because they did look similar to dogs which they had known for a long time but were just larger. It took a while until they learned that a horse could be used for much more than a large dog — for instance, to ride on it and move quicker than ever, which turned out to be a huge productivity gain for hunting or war. Some tribes learned that quickly, others late, and some not at all. Humans do not change their habits fast since we inherently compare something new to something we know. Habits help humans to orient themselves in a new environment like with a new medium.

When the first radio transmission was online, it broadcasted live music as if you were present in person at a live concert and listening. When the first television was available, it showed a live video of the radio studio as if you were still just listening to the radio. When the first photographs were made, they made only portraits and replaced the so-called miniature paintings — very small pictures of loved ones, paintings that were put into amulets in a necklace to have loved ones close to you.

The internet was first of all used to increase computing power by connecting smaller computers in a network to design one powerful computer out of the few available, but the true beauty of the internet and what can be done with it was for decades overlooked. When the first smartphones became available, people just used them to call other people like with their landline phone at home. While all of that was useful, helped to make our lives better, and increased productivity, it also reveals that a new medium’s impact on society is usually underestimated.

Habits are a part of human nature. Changing habits consumes time and everybody who has tried to stop smoking, stop drinking, or start eating less knows how hard that can be. Sometimes it’s a generation that needs to grow up with that new habit or medium to fully understand what it is for and get used to completely new habits, like everybody staring at their smartphones.

If you don’t give people enough time to adjust, they tend to have fear, become aggressive, or even panic. When Orson Wells broadcasted the World of Wars science-fiction documentary in 1938 over the radio, a mass panic was reported on the US East Coast from people assuming aliens were invading the USA, which was a result of people not yet understanding what the new medium could be used for.

The term “medium” is defined as a communication vehicle, and that’s a beautiful description of what an electric AV is. Even the transportation part of its services is communication, because communication is the transfer of information, and that is inherent when you drive a human from point A to point B. A human is a piece of information and if you transport that information, you have created communication.

The ongoing argument between people who drive a gas/diesel car and others driving a full electric car is not only a communication issue, but an expression of missing changes in habit, and that will intensify when AVs are driving on our roads. Some will adjust faster and others slower, but the gap between the two groups increases when the technological change is fast, and right now we are experiencing a disruption, or accelerating technology change.

When a new medium appears, like a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or AV, our habits lead us to believe it is just a better version of what we had before, like a better version of a normal gas car. We can compare the arrival of BEVs to how the native Americans thought about the introduction of horses. That a BEV and AV are fundamentally different from a “normal” gas car, with many new possible use cases and services, will take a long time for most to comprehend. 

A kid does not have a history of long-term habits, and for that reason understands the benefits easier, the new medium’s services, and this will include use cases of a BEV and AV. That’s the reason why parents learned from their children how to use a computer and a smartphone, not vice versa.

Not to understand what others do and to conflict with habits can create aggression. Just a short while ago, a few hundred years back in time, people would have burned you alive on the main market square surrounded by a large crowd for using a cell phone. Today, it is a normal habit after just about a generation since it’s been available, but it was helpful for most to have been used to landline phones and able to relate the new device to an older habit. The new medium was like a landline — just without the line — at first.

With the increasing acceleration of innovation, it is like time is moving more rapidly today than in the past, but human behavior and habits don’t so easily.

Besides early adopters, and I consider myself to be a part of that group, we need to be prepared that we have laggards as well who will react to AVs and AI at first with distance, fear, anger, aggression, and panic.

The threat that many feel autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence present to our lives may be in reality a threat that is located rather in humans and their habits.

The invention of autonomous driving vehicles and artificial intelligence is like a sudden, unexpected present from God to mankind, and we learned from the past that such presents can be used for good or bad regardless of how hard we try.

Even if the consequences are described as only to be bad, there is always someone who takes the apple from the tree and all of a sudden paradise is lost. 

Original Publication by Alex Voigt at CleanTechnica.

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