Strictly Business: Driving on with new technology

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor



Gordon Oliver

Ready or not, we’re approaching the day when we’ll hand control of our cars over to computers.

Steve Brown, whose job title of “chief futurist and evangelist” at Intel, was already many steps ahead of that profound change during a recent business panel discussion at the University of Portland. As Brown and other panelists debated the social and economic impacts of the driverless car, I felt I’d missed the news that I’d soon trust my life to Google or some other driverless car creator.

As with so many advances in the digital age, the time span between futuristic and commonplace for the self-driving car could be astonishingly short. Brown and Steve Gutmann, a pioneer in developing local car-sharing services, accepted an apparently inevitable future and discussed how to maximize the social good of the driverless car technology. Along with Diane Michelfelder, a Macalester College professor specializing in ethical issues presented by emerging technologies, they probed a question that has haunted humanity through the ages: How do we control and shape technologies to serve us, rather than enslave us?

The automobile provided a useful focal point in the discussion. Guttman noted that carsharing was widely mocked as impractical during its early years, when a predecessor to Zipcar planted cars on Portland streets and offered them to its members for short-time rentals. Today, carsharing is available in many cities, including Vancouver, and transportation giant Daimler AG has entered the market with its bargain Car2Go service. In Guttman’s mind, carshare users have found a way to make the automobile a tool rather than a master.

In recent years, technology-driven services have encroached on deep-seated industries with far greater impact. The Uber ridesharing service, available in Vancouver, offers taxi-like rides with a few clicks on a smartphone. The room rental service Airbnb, with a regional office in Portland, opens a new world of vacation accommodations without ever booking a hotel room. Both pose fundamental threats to established industries of taxi drivers and hotel operators, while offering vast new opportunities to consumers.

That brings us back to the University of Portland discussion. The benefits of driverless cars seem plain enough. We’d see fewer collisions and highway deaths, resulting in a lower need for medical services and car repairs. But thousands would have to find new jobs and careers.

But a loss of jobs in some fields frees people for other, probably more satisfying work, Brown said. For his part, Guttman would like to channel the emerging technologies to build on the sharing economy that makes more efficient use of resources and creates new business models.

Ours is an unpredictable world, and we need to worry about those who get swept away by the march of technology. No longer will we be able to escape to the open road. The driverless car won’t take us there.