If we’ve learned anything from Silicon Valley, it’s to over-promise and under-deliver. And if we’ve learned anything else from Silicon Valley, it’s that replacing humans with artificial intelligence is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Put these two tendencies together, and you get an awful lot of humans performing grunt work that tech companies previously wanted to automate away only to find they couldn’t write algorithms that performed as well as any human could. The first examples that immediately jump to mind are content moderation on the major social networks, transcribing recordings from smart speakers, and Elon Musk’s attempt to automate the Tesla assembly line only to admit “humans are underrated.”
Don’t look now, but self-driving cars are a prime candidate to be the latest major “automation” technology that is performed not by a computer, but by a human you can’t see. Think of it kind of like drone piloting, except if the Department of Defense had initially promised drones would fly and bomb all by themselves.
I’ve been thinking about this possibility for a while—partly after reading my colleague Jason Torchinsky’s book—as there are a number of startups working in what they call the tele-operations field. But I was reminded of it recently when gig economy company Doordash purchased Scotty Labs, which TechCrunch describes as “a tele-operations company that is working on technology to enable people to remotely control self-driving cars.” “Remotely control self-driving cars” is one hell of an oxymoron!
Scotty’s approach seems to be to combine autonomous driving in some scenarios with remote driving in others. And they’re far from the only ones. According to WIRED, “Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise, Nutonomy, Zoox, Drive.ai, Uber, and Nissan are all quietly developing teleoperation systems” in addition to the subject of WIRED’s article, Phantom Auto (WIRED did not mention Scotty).
In some ways this makes sense. The available evidence so far is that self-driving cars can probably get pretty damn good at driving in uncomplicated situations like well-marked highways without road work, but more complex situations like urban driving may remain vexing for decades to come. Calling up a human elsewhere to take control of the complicated situations doesn’t sound so crazy.
But driving a car in a populated area from hundreds or thousands of miles away is a bit more complicated than piloting a drone. Remote pilots have long been plagued by latency issues, where what’s on the screen is seconds behind what’s happening in real life. For drone pilots, latency is problematic and annoying but not a deal-breaker.
That’s not the case with cars. Even a single second of latency would make it nearly impossible to drive the car safely, not to mention if the car experienced connectivity issues or other network failures.
And that’s just the most glaring complication tele-operation poses. Liability in the case of crashes, labor issues, and regulatory hurdles are all giant cans of worms. Who will the drivers work for? What kind of safety regulations or driving standards will apply to them? Can they live in one state and drive in another? What about another country? Will people want some random stranger driving their car?
Regardless of how these questions get sorted, remote drivers feels much more in keeping with the reality Silicon Valley has actually delivered rather than the ones it continually promises with extended deadlines. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic called this reality “a new underclass of urban servants” which includes “the ‘Uber for X’ economy—that nebulous network of people contracted through online marketplaces for driving, delivery, and other on-demand services,” an economy of which Scotty’s new owner Doordash is very much a part.
For those lucky enough to benefit from such services—as with anyone rich enough to have servants—life becomes a frictionless amalgam of goods and services magically appearing before you. But for the servants, it means long, underpaid hours with no benefits and limited protections from labor law.
Obviously, tele-operations doesn’t exist yet, so one cannot say what life will be like for these hypothetical remote drivers. But if history is any guide, it will be a race to the bottom in terms of pay and work conditions, perhaps involving endless terminals in a vast warehouse. As with so many aspects of our lives these days, it’s only too easy to envision a future that is not only sub-optimal, but dystopian.