Driverless Cars: Their Time Will Never Come

The driverless car. An idea whose time will not come. Ever.

Can we just get real here for a minute? Our streets and highways are never going to be populated by a significant number of driverless cars. Any more than our lives are going to be enriched by attentive robots exhibiting artificial intelligence. We are no closer to deploying fleets of driverless cars now than we were to having a flying car in every garage, as the illustrated predictions in Popular Mechanics and the like insisted through the 50s and 60s. And 70s and 80s. (I should have warned you about the disorientation a sudden dose of realism can have; sit down and breath into a paper bag, it will pass.)

The deafening hype we are hearing about driverless cars is the sound of an entire industry trying to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to itself. Everything we hear about the auto industry is good (“2016 U.S.Auto Sales Set New High Record”) because everything we hear comes from the auto industry. And yet its healthy glow is beginning to take on the ghastly sheen of a dead mackerel.

Ever since President Obama saved the auto industry from meltdown in 2008 (yes, he did, you can look it up) it has been the leading light of American industrial activity. Sales bottomed out at fewer than 10 million units in 2009, but have risen steadily since, to an all time high of 17.5 million units, in 2016. What could be wrong with this picture?

Couple of things. First, these sales were accomplished by offering low- and no-interest loans, low- and no-down-payment loans, then extending the length of the loans to lower the payments still more. The average term of a car loan is now five and a half years, with six- and seven-year loans ever more frequent. Still this wasn’t enough. To get the numbers they wanted they had to start making loans to less and less credit-worthy buyers. Before long, in order to keep the big wheel turning, lenders were bundling car loans and securitizing them for more cash to lend to sub-prime borrowers. The sales were booked. The loans were booked (with everyone involved collecting their commissions in cash).  But the cars haven’t been paid for yet, and now the default rates are in the stratosphere. According to MarketWatch:

The number of subprime auto loans sinking into delinquency hit their highest level since 2010 in the third quarter, with roughly 6 million individuals at least 90 days late on their payments. It’s behavior much like that seen in the months heading into the 2007-2009 recession, according to data from Federal Reserve Bank of New York researchers. “The worsening in the delinquency rate of subprime auto loans is pronounced, with a notable increase during the past few years,” the researchers…said Wednesday.

Nobody could have seen that coming.

Another thing. When the factories ship cars and trucks to the dealers, to sit on lots for no one knows how long, they count them as “sold” even though the dealer has the right to return them. At the end of 2016, a banner year for “sales,” an all-time high of almost four million cars were sitting on dealer lots unsold.

So despite the glossy paint on its exterior,  the auto industry is rapidly rusting out from within, and desperately needs its Next Big Thing to appear NOW. Hybrids were it for a while, but gas prices went down and huge SUVs rule the road again. Electric plug-ins? Naw. See the fate of the hybrid. But self-driving cars? Now you got some buzz, man. This could be it.

But desperation generates its own buzz. The makers of computers and cell phones and tablets have all been seeking the Next Big Thing with equal desperation for years. A few years ago it was The Smart Watch. Drum roll!!! Fanfare!!! Launch!!! Nobody bought ‘em. Remember Google Glass? Gone. Virtual reality is currently having its 15-minute audition. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7? Crashed and burned. Literally.

None of these products came to market in response to a need people had. You know, like when they invented the fly swatter. These were things that engineers and marketers believed the general public could be enticed to buy. And that used to work, back when we had a middle class in America with money to spare. Then, you could make a go of pet rocks with the right advertising campaign.

But driverless cars? Let’s try one though experiment. It’s a couple years from now, and you call an Uber car, and when it pulls to the curb and waits for you to get in, there is no one in the car, and there are no controls in the car. Are you going to get in?

Me neither.

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9 Responses to Driverless Cars: Their Time Will Never Come

  1. Oji says:

    On all counts but one, we agree. VR combines two ideas modern people’s love, and can’t live without: escapism and personal entertainment.
    As collapse continues apace, we will embrace VR with all due vigor, so long as it can still be produced.

  2. Mike Kay says:

    The auto industry, like all industry, is a relic of a vanished time. Fewer responses to current conditions are more fanciful than continuing to make large numbers of whatever it is that cannot be sold.
    Either the price of entry needs a serious downward revision, or some form of subsidy needs be invented. What ever happened to all those pundits who lectured us about their free market God? Oh wait, that was just fake news! President drone bomber fixed it up good!
    I agree Mr L., if a driverless car pulls up to give me a ride, I’m going the other way…toward the horse and carriage.

  3. Denis Frith says:

    All these devices are made of irreplacable materials and have limited life times.this is an unsustainabel process that is going to hit the hip pocket of everone in the near future.

  4. Tom says:

    Our (and the global) economy is in the process of imploding, since it was all based on lies, manipulation, advertising hype, outright theft, corruption and the usual boardroom “hope” to survive the next quarterly review. The aforementioned middle class has been gutted by the elite sector, who wants it all now – including pensions, any and everything that can be monetized, and ever-cheaper labor combined with ever higher rents.

    Our civilization has been unsustainable FOREVER – as all previous ones have demonstrated. It takes a long time to kill a viable planet, but changing the atmospheric chemistry via CO2, water vapor and pollution will most definitely illustrate this in (geologically) short order – as it is now.

    Few are paying attention to the continuing die-off of too many species to list – birds, bees (and other pollinators), marine life (from plankton on up to whales), and today 400 turtles were found dead in by a dam in Brazil. Who cares. We’re more focused on the coming Stupor Bowl – even the freaking ADS! – than worrying about anything to do with the environment.

    Is it any wonder that we sit on the precipice of the abyss?

    Great job, as usual Mr. Lewis, pointing out an aspect of the current state of our illusory life which easily leads to a widening view of the situation to anyone with an IQ greater than their shoe size. I appreciate your wit applied to these disparate topics you explore so well.

  5. InAlaska says:

    Let’s not forget AppleTV! Remember that?, it was going to debut year after year after year. Never did. Who needs it? Why?

    Thanks for a good article. Glad you are back in the saddle. We need our chroniclers now more than ever. We are, however, doomed. And we have been since we put down our sharp rocks and picked up the metal plow. Intelligence is a lethal mutation as generally borne out by the Fermi Paradox. As soon as a civilization rises to the level of a heat engine, it kills its atmosphere. You just can’t beat entropy or the laws of thermodynamics. This is nothing to be sad about. It is what it is. We had a good run.

  6. Marieann says:

    I just wrote a comment on a 6 day old post…showing my age there. I’ll repeat; I’m so glad you are back and hope you stay in good health…we need you.

    I agree about the driverless cars, but I think the VR will take off, my son has one and it is amazing.I can see it becoming the next drug, to keep us from reality

  7. Arnie A. says:

    I have a lot of experience with autopilots in heavy aircraft. Used for high altitude cruise they prevent a lot of fatigue. For precision airport approaches and landings they are excellent as long as wind conditions are acceptable. BUT air traffic control (ATC) is always providing ample separation!!! In cars they are talking about 5 levels and whether they will get past level 2 in volume.

  8. Moi says:

    “Real for a minute” — the populace of the consumptive economy cant even get real for a second!
    Keep writing with your particular charm, yes charm

  9. Annar Merirand says:


    Never is a very finite word.
    I would like to see your face in 20 years when you re-read this article of yours. :)
    Wish I could be there.