Last week, I got a glimpse of the future, one in which cars drive themselves and communicate with humans via lights and lasers that project from their front and rear grills.
“The F 015 represents our vision of the future of autonomous driving. The main focus was on showing how drivers would have a completely different atmosphere” inside the car, Simon Tattersall, Mercedes Benz’s resident expert on autonomous driving, told me during a phone interview.
Mercedes wants to remake what the car represents. The seats look and feel more like reclining lounge chairs, so that you can converse with friends inside your metal cocoon. Everything inside is handcrafted. The steering wheel recedes into the background. (If you choose to drive, you can, but why would you?) There are 4K touch displays on the doors and back panels that convert the inside into your own mini IMAX theatre. You can barely see outside. And anyone outside can hardly see in: The windows are shaded with a metallic sheen, for almost complete privacy.
In the future, the company says, time and space will be the ultimate luxuries. And this car will give you that. Why subject your eyes to ugly urban landscapes, when you can shield yourself from reality in this metal hunk of opulence? Rather than freeing people from driving distractions so they can observe their surroundings, the car better insulates them from their surrounding. They no longer have to sneak glances at their smartphone at traffic stops, they are inside a smartphone with wheels.
That’s one of the things I found most interesting — and disturbing — about Mercedes’ vision of the future. It is the wealth bubble incarnate. It’s easy to forget there are housing projects, homeless people on the street, shelters, food deserts, etc. when you literally never have to see them. Not even in passing.
Cars have always provided distance and protection from the wider world, but Benz’s F 015 takes it to a whole new level. Yes, it’s just a concept. But this is what a radically unequal world could look like in 15 years.
In cities like San Francisco, where real estate is stratospherically expensive, we’re already seeing this glimpses of this. There already are social battles over how the tech industry is exacerbating the divide between classes, and driving — excuse the pun — the more affluent to turn a blind eye to their less privileged neighbors.
In November, for instance, Twitter proposed building a bridge between its two downtown San Francisco buildings so that employees could more easily go from one to the next. The company saw it as a matter of efficiency, but Twitter headquarters is located in the mid-Market section of the city, a community rife with poverty. So, some have criticized the move as a means to avoid the city’s poor, even as Twitter (and other tech companies who have moved into the area) enjoy tax breaks.
More recently, Leap, a luxury busliner, started offering San Francisco’s well-to-do a more comfortable, posh alternative to the Muni. For $6 a ride, you can hop on a shuttle that looks more like an upscale coffee shop than a bus. The service is seen as yet another instance of what the haves can do that the have-nots cannot. Like the F 015, both the bridge and the Leap buses are effective means of social avoidance.
Robots won’t just take our jobs, they’re also going to fundamentally change how we interact with one another. Technology probably won’t fuel a utopian robo-enabled communism, where work is a thing of the past and we’re all served by robots. After all, robots will cost money to own, and they won’t come cheap. Some will be able to have servants on demand, basking in the lap of automated luxury, while the rest of us continue to work our asses off, scrambling for the jobs our robot pals haven’t yet taken.