On October 31, an Uzbekistani man named Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck into the bodies of 19 people on the Hudson River Greenway in Lower Manhattan, killing eight of them and injuring 11. He exited his vehicle and allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar!” while trying to flee. He was subsequently stopped by brave New York Police Department officer Ryan Nash, who shot him in the abdomen and immobilized him.
This shameful act of violence, which President Trump labeled a terrorist incident, is the 29th major attack in the last 12 years committed with a car or truck against innocent civilians. In 95 percent of the previous cases, the drivers were all radicalized Muslim men who suddenly “snapped” and decided to use their vehicles as weapons, mowing down people who couldn’t run away from their deadly cars or trucks fast enough.
Some might say the common thread here is that these men all shared an extreme religion that promotes hatred and encourages violence toward its non-followers. But there’s another commonality that these same observers are overlooking. These attacks started occurring in 2006, just as there started to be long-term plans by car companies to manufacture and sell cars that were “self-driving.” In fact, in these makers’ visions, the vehicles would ultimately entirely lack manual controls, meaning that passengers could submit destination information themselves, possibly by speaking to the car via voice commands, or the vehicle could be pre-programmed to take them to a particular place.
Is it possible that due to these multiple (and some say, increasing) incidents of car-and-truck ramming, that there will soon be calls to ban manual controls on cars outright “for people’s own safety”?
While for some, the concept of cars completely lacking controls is something out of science fiction, the fact of the matter is that technological advances are rapidly bringing the car industry toward this end, with Congress completely in support of it, despite the fact that most of the public has never expressed a want, need or desire for these driverless vehicles at all. Do you know anyone who’s ever proclaimed their longing for a car without a driver?
Of course, for some people — daily commuters, for instance — such a prospect may sound attractive. But the idea of taking away manual controls entirely — so there would be no brake, no accelerator, no steering wheel and no manual shifting mechanism — is, to be sure, a bit of a frightening prospect for most people.
And that’s as it should be — thus far, in tests, there’s been at least one fatal accident and an unknown number of non-fatal incidents involving test vehicles that lacked drivers.
While no large groups of consumers or media commentators have yet demanded that manufacturers start putting automated vehicles on the road as soon as possible, car makers are racing toward this goal at a breakneck pace — in theory, in the name of competition — but one wonders if there aren’t also ulterior motives behind this effort.
Within the car industry, there are different levels of vehicle automation that have been defined. Level 1 is what’s called “Driving Assistance,” where either steering or acceleration is aided by automation. Level 2 is called “Partial Automation,” where both steering and acceleration are controlled.
Level 3 is known as “Conditional Automation” — where a car is completely controlled until a driver chooses or is prompted to take over. Level 4 is called “High Automation.” Here, a car is completely controlled even in cases where a driver chooses not to take manual control of the vehicle or doesn’t respond to prompts. Level 5 is “Full Automation,” where no human interaction is required for any part of a journey, and manual controls on the vehicle itself are completely optional.
But from even cursory research, it’s clear that ultimately, the goal of the industry is to sell cars that are all at Level 5, where there will no longer be manual controls of any kind. In theory, this will increase safety, as people who are too drunk won’t be able to take the wheel of a vehicle they may or may not be able to drive. People who are too young, too old or too impaired will be able to get to destinations without any assistance and without posing a hazard to anyone else on the road.
But just what destinations will these passengers be going to?
Already, libertarians have raised the alarm about routes and destinations of driverless vehicles being tracked. Currently, car GPS system data is compiled and deeply analyzed by insurance companies, transportation companies, gas companies and many other corporations that have a stake in making routes safer, more efficient and more profitable.
But what about the government? With all this data more or less readily available, are intelligence agencies also dipping into these data wells to learn things that we can only speculate about?
With mass shooting incidents happening with increasing frequency, there have been plenty of calls to ban guns, or to at least to perform background checks that would prevent people with a history of mental health problems from being able to acquire a gun. Might there also be limits placed on where such people would be able to be driven to, once the government has the ability to control this functionality? Of course, this could all be “in the name of public safety.”
Controlling citizens’ movements has long been identified as a tactic of totalitarian government. The state of North Korea mandates that citizens who wish to travel even medium-range distances within the country’s borders get difficult-to-obtain permits from the government (external travel is all but banned for citizens who are not part of the Hermit Kingdom’s diplomatic corps — and even then, diplomats’ families are nearly always used as “leverage” to keep these few overseas officials from defecting).
In China, a new artificially intelligent (AI) system from Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, called City Brain, helps the Chinese government keep track of its citizens’ movements. Xian-Sheng Hua, manager of AI at Alibaba Group has stated, “In China, people have less concern with privacy, which allows us to [develop our tools] faster.”
Since the system was implemented in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, a news article in New Scientist gushed, “Traffic congestion is down, road accidents are automatically detected and responded to faster, and illegal parking is tracked in real time. If someone breaks the law, they too can be tracked throughout the city before being picked up by the police.”
Is the U.S. headed in this direction? Will citizens one day need special licenses to own cars they can still drive themselves using their own hands and feet? Will such vehicles otherwise be termed “deadly weapons”?
Consider that in the car-and-truck ramming incidents cited at the beginning of this article, all the drivers seemed to have suffered mental breakdowns in the days or weeks leading up to their attacks. It’s long been the dream of intelligence agencies to be able to dupe or control unwitting human “stooges” for their own purposes; this was the plot of the famous 1959 Richard Condon book and 1962 John Frankenheimer movie “The Manchurian Candidate.”
It’s known that the CIA had quested after this goal for decades, beginning with its “MK-ULTRA” program in the early 1950s — a program that ultimately was discontinued, according to official sources. But given that this program achieved limited success using drugs such as LSD and scopolamine as long as six decades ago, one has to wonder if such programs were being continued clandestinely and what advances they may have been able to achieve in the interim.
Consider also, that there are many people who believe the most radical Muslim terrorist organizations such as ISIS or al-Qaeda have received funding from or are even wholesale inventions of the CIA and/or other U.S. government intelligence agencies.
One has to ask, if automobiles as an invention are over 100 years old, why were there no car or truck ramming attacks in the first century or so of their existence? Why is it that these attacks have only begun occurring just prior to the next major technological “leap” in vehicles’ advancement?
One recent headline in The Daily Caller website blared “Vehicle Terror Attacks [Are] Becoming the New Normal.” In the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, a similar headline read, “Terror Attacks Using Vehicles Feel Like the New Normal — and Are Incredibly Hard to Police or Protect Against.” In the UK’s Daily Mail, a recent article began by stating that “Terrorist attacks using vehicles… are becoming a new reality.”
On 2016, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued new guidelines for carmakers that said, “Manufacturers can apply for exemptions [from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) law] that may allow for the deployment of vehicle test fleets with significantly different vehicle designs that would otherwise not be compliant with [federal] standards.” In September, the House of Representatives passed “The Self-Drive Act,” which would pre-empt state governments from passing laws banning automated vehicles. A full 100 percent of Congressional representatives voted for this bill, despite very, very few members of the public expressing any interest in its passage and despite a significant number of accidents involving research test vehicles.
“This is very good news for the auto industry and those companies that are involved in self-driving vehicles,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for car marketplace Autotrader. “The lack of [government] regulations has often been cited as a potential obstacle to the proliferation of self-driving vehicles. So having this federal framework, if it gets passed by the Senate, will take care of that.”
In early November, the DOT issued “A Vision for Safety 2.0” — a 12-point safety checklist for vehicle manufacturers to follow, which was reduced from a 15-point list issued earlier. “Work is advancing so quickly, however, that an updated version is already in the works,” stated Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at a DOT event introducing its list. “That’s how fast technology is changing.” It should be noted that DOT guidance for automakers no longer includes any language regarding privacy or ethical issues.
One has to wonder, what’s behind all of this breakneck-speed innovation and seemingly unstoppable progress toward vehicles without manual driving controls? One has to wonder if the concept of the self-driven car is doomed to be a nearly outlawed device, a mere 125 years after its invention.