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Opinion

Self-Driving Cars Are the New Washing Machines, and Other Revelations from Teaching a College Course About Autonomous Vehicles

Patrick McGinty teaches in the English department at Slippery Rock University, is an autonomous vehicle enthusiast and a guest contributor for Ground Truth.

“Hi, I’m Professor McGinty, and I teach in the English Department, so, naturally, this is a course about driverless cars.”

In the fall of 2019, I opened three college seminars with those same words, and each time I received the same general reaction: confused silence. Some of the 75 undergraduate students had clamored to get a spot in the class, officially titled “University Seminar: Driverless Cars.” Many more had been randomly placed there. The uncertainty amongst both groups likely intensified when I followed my introduction with: “We’re actually not going to talk about cars at all for a while. We’re going to talk about history.”

In planning the course, I fought the instinct to entice students with proverbial shiny objects, like whether self-driving vehicles were going to eliminate traffic jams, or end car crashes, or result in flying robotaxis taking them to class. Sure, we could jump right into whatever debate was dominating #AutonomousVehicle Twitter that week, but I had grown weary of that forum’s vacillation between boundless hype and evidence-free skepticism. 

So instead, I decided to take a gamble. Unit 1 would be entitled “Constructing a Context for American Innovation,” which was me basically saying: When it comes to this flashy topic you’ve signed up for, none of it is actually all that new. I asked students to create oral histories that traced the hype cycle of a 20th century innovation of their choosing. They had to interview their uncles and grandmothers and elderly neighbors about the first time they used a new technology, be it a garbage disposal or an Internet modem. They would then weave these anecdotes with primary news articles from the era to construct a brief three-part chronology of their chosen topic–from pre-launch, to launch, to post-launch. 

The project was admittedly a little challenging for the students, many of whom had never read—let alone written—an oral history before. But the results effectively demonstrated my balloon theory: that when it comes to new technology, we spend too much time spewing hot air into these new balloons, and also gasping air out in panicked horror, rather than calmly observing the balloon and discussing what the appropriate shape of it should be. One student’s presentation on the automatic washing machine detailed how, despite initial concerns about injuries and water usage, the technology’s pricing and safety steadily came in line; direct quotes from older family members explained how the device opened up literal hours in their day. Another presentation covered the hilariously hyped, disastrously launched Virtual Boy, a 90s Nintendo console that apparently caused children under seven to develop a lazy eye. 

Beyond simply demonstrating that both hype and skepticism are often wildly off the mark, the assignment paid off in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated. Students were now coming to class bearing questions from their interviewees. Grandparents and uncles wanted to know what we were reading. They were interested. I felt I was on the right track. 

The moment that ignited my fascination with driverless cars is not particularly glamorous. I genuinely can’t remember whether it occurred in the spring, summer, or fall of 2015. What I do recall is watching an autonomous vehicle delicately navigate down the potholed alley behind my house in Pittsburgh. I had seen plenty of self-driving vehicles around the city, but watching one map the street behind my deteriorating garage indicated that the technology was much further along than I thought.

Because I am an English instructor and thus a hopeless nerd, I immediately went to my local library, planning to request every recent book-length work of cultural criticism and journalistic reportage on driverless cars. I found zero (books by Lawrence D. Burns, Dan Albert, and Edward Niedermeyer were still a few years away). Even worse, the peer-reviewed articles about autonomous vehicles that I spent days sifting through seemed as obsessed with hypothetical launch dates and predictions as did the various pundits you can read on AV Twitter. Seismic events were afoot, and yet smart people were struggling to explain them clearly to me.

Simply put: this bummed me out. I felt that AVs were at a unique technological moment—observable but not yet usable, increasingly ubiquitous but under-discussed. When, a few years later, my university announced a new seminar program in which faculty could teach a topic-specific course outside of their traditional discipline, I saw it as a rare opportunity—both for me and my students. Whereas new technologies are generally first understood by hyper-educated specialists, roughly 40% of my students are first-generation college attendees, mainly hailing from blue-collar Western Pennsylvania. I saw the seminar as a chance for them to finally discuss a technology before it became a dominant presence in their lives. Ideally, they would take my class and feel empowered to contribute to the discourse about AVs. They would tell me (and their peers, and their family, and anyone else who’d listen) what to think about driverless cars.

The big risky assumption, of course, was that they would care at all.

At first, ‘Unit 2: Placing Driverless Cars into Historic Context’ halted some of the momentum generated by the oral history project. Even though post-course commentary indicated that students appreciated Samuel I. Schwartz’s 2018 book No One At the Wheel, and even though we desperately needed to develop some common self-driving terminology, it became clear that students found many AV-related topics…boring. They participated in conversations about traffic, the environment, and self-driving developments in different countries, but their contributions were often mild and intellectual, not emotional. 

Then, one day, a Schwartz chapter prompted us to discuss the declining rate of teenagers acquiring driver’s licenses. Our conversation soon narrowed down to two classmates who hailed from different rural communities. Neither student had a drivers license, and they began weighing how driverless cars would affect their lives. One student felt that AVs might further isolate her and her family from what she saw as more technologically savvy urban centers. Her classmate felt that driverless cars would connect her more, citing the complete lack of public transit in her region.

I stayed completely out of the above discussion. It struck me that more than any reading, paper, or project, what the students really needed was 1) time to find common ground with their peers, then 2) uninterrupted dialogue about that common ground with minimal input from a more authoritative figure (in this case, me). The results were revelatory—the students were beginning to engage.

I cannot stress this enough: across the term, the biggest attitude changes about self-driving were sparked by the students themselves. Each week, it felt like new micro-groups and new opinions were forming. Two children of truck drivers discussed when and how their parents might adapt to a new reality of driverless trucking. (One person felt that certain job functions would always require humans; the other thought this argument was naive). Students majoring in special education and physical therapy held conversations about how to ensure autonomous vehicles could increase access to appointments, work, and school for their future students and patients. 

All the while, family members from the oral history project kept sending in comments. Someone’s mom followed me on Twitter, then a dad. I had us rolling into Unit 3: “Placing Driverless Cars into Literary Narratives,” which was when the term would get really fun. As a novelist, I was beyond excited to share tips for constructing scenes and dialogue. Students would take their specialized AV interests and run wild in short stories, screenplays, and graphic novels.

Some narratives were spoofy and legitimately funny. One student constructed a graphic-novel retelling of Titanic, with a massive AV journeying across the country. But an overwhelming majority of the narratives expressed complex anxieties that, to be frank, startled me. A brilliantly structured, color-coded choose-your-own adventure story offered multiple chances to take either an AV or regular car, only to have underfunded infrastructure nearly kill you at every turn. In another story, election day voting took place only inside of AVs, and politicians were attempting to send vehicles only to favorable districts.

The anxieties, in other words, were not really about self-driving vehicles. They were about the country wherein these vehicles would roam. A student majoring in safety management made one of the more compelling, straightforward points on the topic. “It seems like in order for driverless cars to thrive, democracy has to thrive,” he said, “and it doesnt really seem like that is happening.”

By the last month of the course, things were getting a little bit away from me, in a good way. I felt I had successfully answered the “will they care?” question. Students were demonstrating in all kinds of ways that this topic mattered to them. The scope of their tangential interests—like American democracy—was far beyond what I could’ve hoped for before the term. 

For the semester-ending final unit, I asked students to thoroughly research an AV-related persona—an author, an academic, maybe even a CEO—and present this individual’s core work and thesis to the class by pretending to be that person.  One student chose Sarah Seo, a Columbia Law School professor whose book Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom I was only vaguely familiar with. The student, as Professor Seo, presented on the potential effect of driverless cars on policing of minority communities. What started as a conversation about driving while black became a wide-ranging discussion about the potential for driverless cars to de-escalate police presence in public spaces.

After years of miring myself in so much AV writing and conversation that centered on absurdly far-off hypotheticals, it was refreshing and even inspiring to see students center their conversation on an observable, pre-existing problem (driving while black), then discussing how technology could perhaps address this problem. All this at a university where some of my past students have organized protests against police violence while others have become state troopers.

For a few months after the course, it seemed possible that some of my students would organize AV-related clubs or even attempt to work in the self-driving sector one day. Several students shared their symposium presentations with their actual project personas. (One student, who worked as a parts runner at an automotive warehouse, was sent a signed book by the autonomous trucking expert Steve Viscelli.) I hosted something of a standing meeting with several seminar students to keep track of industry trends (mostly, we laughed at Tweets). 

The pandemic cut these meetings short; neither they or I could fit in (or tolerate) more Zoom. But I still hear from many of my seminar students, usually with a request that I offer comment on some newsy autonomous vehicle development. It brings me a great deal of professional satisfaction to respond with genuine helplessness: “I had not seen this. Please tell me what to think.”

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