Does self-driving car take away opportunities to be nice?

The Google driverless car is just one of the self-driving cars predicted to become the automotive norm.

Technology will make a giant leap from fiction to reality if self-driving cars hit the road within a few years, as predicted in this story in the Los Angeles Times.

As expected, the big concern about the vehicle is safety … I feel like I should add a “duh” here. If there’s no one behind the wheel, the big question is obviously, “How does the car know where to go?”

But there’s one aspect of this science fiction achievement that no one has brought up: the self-driving car further isolates us from our fellow humans.

If we’re able to drive a car without having to look out the windshield, it’s just one more lost opportunity to notice the world around us. And if we can drive and read or work on our laptops while the car takes us where we want to go, we lose the ability to actually interact with other people.

I’m not just talking about the ability to gesture to other drivers (nicely or otherwise), but also the ability to make decisions that affect others, both in positive and negative ways.

Let’s say you’re driving in traffic on the highway and someone is trying to get into your lane of traffic. It’s bumper to bumper, they have on their turn signal and you have the ability to let them squeeze in ahead of you. You can be a jerk and speed up so they can’t cut in or you can slow down a bit and wave them into your lane, but either way you made a conscious decision that affects another person.

Cut them off, tick them off, and they go on to spread that frustration throughout the day. Wave them him, they’re grateful, they pay that gratitude forward. Even more, you go on to spread frustration and gratitude, based on how you feel about your own actions. In a self-driving car, the  vehicle makes the decision. You’re in the driver’s seat, oblivious to it all – and unaffected by it as well.

As you  may know, in 2014 I’m focusing on being nice – looking for ways to be more pleasant, help other people, or generally just be a nicer person. The opportunities to do that come in small, unexpected ways – when you hold open a door, return a grocery cart to the rack, or let someone ahead of you in traffic.

But the more we depend upon technology, the less we interact with fellow humans. It’s just a fact. We answer phones, texts and emails 24/7, any time and anywhere we are. We’re plugged in, wired, and online every waking moment. As a result, we don’t look people in the eye or even listen to them with our full attention.

I’d like to think that at least when we’re behind the wheel of our car we can detach from the electronic umbilical cord long enough to interact with other drivers. Even if it’s just to wave to the guy who let you into his lane of traffic.

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