Why Autonomous Cars Will Never Take Us Home

PART I – February 1986

I’m about thirty yards from the fire. The storefront is gone. Fire trucks are only now arriving – sirens screaming, red lights pulsating in the hot tropical night. Maybe it was a café. Not a store. Broken tables and chairs are strewn across the sidewalk. I go up on my tiptoes to see over the crowd, to see if there are bodies in the plaza, among the shattered glass and bricks. No bodies. But an ambulance has already rushed away. Another waits in the street.

I look at my watch. 9:42. The curfew starts in eighteen minutes, and all these gawkers will be arrested, and a foreigner won’t get any favors here. I run my hand into my front pocket. My passport is there with a few intis and a map of the Peruvian coast.

All afternoon, my gut told me to slow down, take my time, don’t rush. Now I need to hurry, to get away from the chaos and the prospect of arrest.

The crowd moves back as the first fire truck shoots a jet of water into the gaping hole, knocking down tables and chairs that weren’t blown out by the explosion. The flames expand for a moment, then retreat. A plume of black smoke rises and covers the second-story façade. The sirens stop. Steam hisses from inside the building. A fireman emerges from the crowd, wielding an axe and a flashlight.

Another fireman rotates a turret on the second fire truck. Or is it a military truck? It’s not red and friendly looking. It might be dark green or black. I can’t tell in the flickering lights. The fireman, or soldier, or whatever he is, swings a dry water canon toward the crowd, swiveling it up and around, testing its range. Then he stands still, waiting, one hand on the yoke, the other on the valve lever. The plaza is now swarming with military police.

9:51. I don’t have a place to stay downtown, to retreat before the curfew begins. On a side street I look for a ride out of the capital. I’ve got nine minutes to get indoors or beyond the reach of the military police.

A car pulls out along the narrow street. I catch a ride. The driver says this is the work of Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path – anti-government guerrillas. Or it could be the work of Túpac Amaru, he says. A rival terrorist group.

We get away from the center and onto the highway, south and then east. We’re both quiet. I’m counting the minutes and estimating the remaining distance to the outskirts of Lima. I think he is too.

Sendero Luminoso, he says quietly, nodding, as though agreeing with himself.

I agree and ask him to drop me at one end of the overpass. He turns off his headlights and stops. As I exit the car, he tells me to be careful. We haven’t even shared names, but he calls me Yankee. Yanqui. Not a pejorative this time, but to remind me to stay down, to stay out of sight.

Ten cuidado, Yanqui.

I thank him. It’s just after ten o’clock. He continues out of the capital. Headlights off. I scramble down the embankment and make my way along surface streets to the familiar high and heavy gate. I press the buzzer in the concrete column, and wait.

Footsteps. Someone is there. Listening. I whisper.




The giant bolt scrapes open. Feliciano touches my arm as I slip though the gate.


As I’m showering and getting ready for bed, I review the events of the day. Only now do I begin to grasp the significance of the day’s minor setbacks.

I hitchhiked from Trujillo this afternoon. Three hundred fifty miles. And all along there had been delays, setbacks. But the driver had gone faster each time, catching us up to his schedule, to our schedule, which was to arrive in Lima by 9:30 tonight. When the lights of Callao came into view he was pushing eighty miles an hour.

From the very start, in Trujillo, I had my own minor delay. A setback of sorts. One driver had offered space in the crowded bed of his pickup truck. But I had been outside for days, and couldn’t bear to get wind-whipped and sandblasted on the coastal highway. The trip would take six hours. Three in the sun. I thanked him and passed.

Ten minutes. I waved down another car headed south.

Hasta Lima?

Sí. Vamos.

I was the last to squeeze in. A big navy blue sedan. Maybe a Buick Skylark. No chrome model name. No chrome. Four doors. Five passengers and the driver. When I found my seatbelt and clicked it together, the others rummaged for theirs.

Sixty-five miles an hour. A little over the speed limit: one hundred kilometers per hour.

A couple hours out of Trujillo, the woman in the middle-front seat asked to stop. Bathroom break. The driver asked if he could just pull over to the side of the road.

No. Please stop at a walk-in, sit-down bathroom.

A few miles down the highway we pulled off into a small town and found a bathroom. Another passenger smoked a cigarette. Another gulped an Inca Kola. I stood in the long shadow of a concrete telephone pole, and looked at my map.

Bathroom break over.

We piled into the car and made our way to the highway.

Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.

Seventy miles an hour.

A few minutes later, we passed a store and bathroom right on the highway. The driver lamented that we should have stopped there. It would have saved time. But who knew?

The sun went down, and the heat remained. All the windows stayed open. I was still getting wind-whipped. But the car offered protection from the blowing black volcanic sand.

Without the equatorial sun burning through the open windows, I was able to doze for almost two hours. Then I woke to the slowing motion of the car and the bump bump as we left the pavement. Fuel stop. We still had a quarter tank. More than enough to reach Lima.

The driver said fuel would be less expensive along the highway than in Lima. A couple passengers disagreed. I think they did; the whoosh of seventy-mile-an-hour wind had left my ears ringing. He countered that the service stations might be closed in Lima for the curfew. They nodded at this.

Fuel tank full. We all gave him an equal share of gas money, and a little extra, and got on our way again.

Ten minutes.

Seventy-five miles an hour.

I didn’t doze this time. Instead, I pulled the map from my pocket again and tried to determine our time to Lima. I could make it by 9:30. In time to catch a ride out of the city – with a safe margin. The curfew, the toque de queda, was all the news on the radio. President García had declared a nationwide state of emergency last Friday.

I studied the map and watched for signs along the highway. Then, BANG! The driver swerved toward the shoulder and then into the oncoming lane. We fishtailed for a moment, recovered and pulled over. Flat tire. Another delay.

We pulled luggage from the trunk. I set my backpack on the shoulder with the suitcases. The driver lifted a piece of plywood from inside the cavernous trunk. The jack and tire iron and spare tire were all in place. The spare was inflated. Gracias a Dios – someone muttered.

The flat tire was bald. I walked around the car to see what the others looked like. All just as bald. And the asphalt was still hot, though the sun had been down for almost three hours. The driver asked everyone to stand clear while he worked.

Ten minutes.

He tossed the flat tire in the trunk with the jack and tire iron, covered it with the plywood, and we put our luggage back.

Eighty miles an hour.

But we were too close to Lima now, and we would be slowing as we entered the city. We wouldn’t make the plaza de armas by 9:30. We couldn’t recover these last ten minutes. Not this time.


I’m sitting on the edge of my bed now, still trying to grasp what has happened today. All afternoon, we ran into ten-minute delays.

My own delay was in there. I had declined the pickup truck for the car.

Ten minutes.

One passenger had asked for a dignified bathroom break.

Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.

The driver had stopped for fuel; though we had enough to finish the trip.

Ten minutes.

The tire had blown out only a few miles from Lima.

Ten minutes.

And all afternoon our driver caught us up, got us back on schedule. Except for the last delay – the flat tire. We were too close to Lima. Too close to make up time. And so we arrived ten minutes late at the plaza de armas.

I had asked a man in the plaza – how long ago had the bomb go off?

Hace como diez minutos. About ten minutes ago.

Ten minutes.

The same time it took to change the flat tire.

I make no conclusions here. Dumb luck. Divine intervention. Confirmation bias. Whatever. We just missed the bombing by ten minutes. That’s all. My choices, the driver’s choices, the passengers’ choices – these all affected when we arrived. And we got there ten minutes late. Or just in time.


PART II – July 2017

Autonomous vehicles didn’t exist in 1986. Not as autonomous cars that would take a person from Trujillo to Lima anyway.

But what if they had?

Between Trujillo to Lima – all of the choices that I made, that the driver made, that the passengers made – all of these choices would have been made for us, or would have been influenced in some way by the car’s computer.

The tires would have been replaced earlier – mandated by electronic sensors. No choice; the car would have driven itself to the shop weeks before. No bald tires. No flats. And we would have been ahead by ten minutes.

Fuel was actually less expensive in Lima, and some stations were still open right up to the curfew. An autonomous car would have known this – from a satellite link. And we would have been ahead by ten minutes.

The car would have stopped at the bathroom right on the highway, and would have minimized our delay. That would have saved us a few minutes. Maybe five. Maybe ten.

No extra fuel stops, no flat tires, no searching for an out-of-the-way bathroom, no catching up or falling behind. Just going the speed limit. Arriving perfectly on time.

An autonomous car would have taken all these choices from us, and ensured that we arrived right when the café exploded into the street.

I’m not suggesting an autonomous car could have been culpable in our injury or death. They can actually do worse than that.

Imagine you’re traveling in an autonomous car from your home to the grocery store. You enter the destination into the car’s computer, and off you go. After you buy groceries, you get in your car and head home. Directly home. That’s what autonomous cars do. Efficiently. On time.

But what if you see a homeless war veteran selling American flags on the corner, and you want so badly to stop and help? But your autonomous car won’t let you pull over, because the shoulder isn’t wide enough to safely stop, or there are cars behind you that won’t let you stop. Not drivers. Cars. The cars won’t let you stop.

Or maybe you’re texting or napping while your autonomous car takes you past the house of an elderly widow bent over her flower garden. You’re no longer engaged in the environment around you – you don’t need to be – and so are unaware of the opportunity to help her.

Or you notice someone is trying desperately to pull into traffic – a father you recognize, on his way to pick up his daughter from practice – but your autonomous car only considers the efficiency of traffic flow and not that a child is going to be anxious and worried in an empty parking lot. You try to override the algorithm, but your car keeps going – for the sake of efficiency. Along with the next car. And the next. You can’t let him in.

You’ll arrive at your destination on time. I’ll arrive on time. But at what cost?

And what will we miss along the way?

There’s a greater chance we’ll miss the homeless veteran selling flags, the widow in her garden or the father trying to reach his daughter. And that changes who we are.

Autonomous cars will get us to our destination. Sure. But stopping along the way will get us home.


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