I remember the first time I saw a high tech Dyson hand dryer in a bathroom. This must have been around 2006. It looked futuristic and sounded like a jet engine and flash dried my hands in a matter of seconds.
If the future didn’t look like Dyson jet sounding hand dryers, I didn’t know what did. It was freaking amazing.
I excitedly explained my discovery to a colleague (shout out to Adam Lovinus) and detailed just how much better it was then those old-fashioned hand dryers or especially primitive and wasteful paper towels.
He seemed unimpressed.
“Still not faster than drying my hands on my pants,” he deadpanned. (This reminds me of a bathroom sign at the local Urban Ecology Center, which challenges visitors to dry their hands like their director — by waving them in the air.)
Every new technology always comes with the promise of greater efficiency and increased leisure. What usually happens is more of a mixed bag, or less revolutionary than what was promised.
You can answer emails right from your smartphone so you’ll be so productive! Then you fill your time with social media.
You can load all of your dishes in the dishwasher! Still have to load and unload it.
You can use video conferencing to meet with someone without flying halfway across the world! Then you get sucked in on more inefficient conference calls with more people.
I’m not saying go back to the dark ages. I wouldn’t like to do my laundry in the wash basin. But if history shows anything, it’s that technology isn’t necessarily utopian. All technologies come with trade-offs, for better or worse.
I think of this example when I think about the hype of self-driving vehicles.
The promise of self-driving cars goes beyond the fact that you’ll no longer need to depress an accelerator and put both hands on the wheels. (Seriously, how lazy does this sound? That we can’t be bothered to exert attention and the slightest bit of physical movement?)
Beyond carting you around, self-driving cars are also supposed to transform society because we’ll no longer have needs for parking ramps, wide roads and a car in every driveway. We’ll all get manicures and massages in our cars, which will open up new jobs. Just push a button and your car will arrive, like out of a magical mist.
The reality may be messier. Would autonomous vehicles spur more exurbs and even more pollution-creating driving when people don’t need to worry as much about a long commute? What happens outside densely populated areas, where on-demand cars may be less accessible? Does this just widen the already growing technology and wealth gaps?
And then what’s next after we inevitably become acclimated and unimpressed with self-driving cars? Maybe we’ll all demand and finally get our jetpacks.
I was thinking about the future of self-driving vehicles the other day when I was using that other self-driving vehicle, my bike.
It was 60 degrees in December and I was riding down the Oak Leaf Trail. I was thinking about climate change and the day when we don’t think anything of a summer-like morning in December anymore.
On a day like this, I was thankful to ride my bike, save money on gas, not pollute, breath the fresh air, and think about the future.
In five or 10 or 20 years, we may have bigger concerns than who or what drives our vehicles. We might be worried about hot and dry summers, overpopulation, decaying infrastructure or other large-scale problems. New cars may not make these problems go away.
Now, I can’t get too excited about a future of high powered hand driers, as cool as they may be.