Near Future Labs – Helios Pilot: Quick Start Guide

I chose to focus on a project from Near Future Labs, which describes itself as, “…a thinking, making, design, development and research practice based in California and Europe.” (From their website’s “About” section).

The project is a Design Fiction, as they call it, about a potential self-driving car, and is “Powered By Amazon” according to it’s front page (the pdf is linked below).

The general idea here is a hypothetical manual of a future driverless car system, outlining some of the basics of owning/operating it, as well as making reference to a larger “off-screen” manual of actual car-manual size (presumably, based on referenced pages and sections throughout, especially in the final FAQ section).

The manual executes its vision with various illustrations, and in a funny way, considering the topic this week, gives a clear sense of spaces that one will be interacting with, both within and without the car (I almost thought I had failed to find a “spatial”-oriented project until I realized that I was thinking very visually about this car, how it drives, where it parks, etc.–just a funny note, as it was as though I consciously failed to understand what my sense of embodied space immediately “got”… if that makes sense).

I was especially struck on this level by the idea of one’s car being elsewhere most of the time, or at least part of it. There’s a program from Uber it mentions wherein your car would go off and essentially be an Uber Pool without a driver. This was maybe a moment of spatial sensing or something, where I immediately felt a sense of dread and weariness at the idea of my car driving around not just with me in it (scary enough!) but with other people in it, cruising around on its own “decisions” or protocols I guess.

In any case, the “Intelligence” here is obvious on the one hand–a driverless car has a necessary AI quality to it, especially in this future scenario–but is also a bit hidden from view, so to speak. We are assured of the car’s intelligence almost implicitly, at least in my reading; what I mean is we are, like other instances of simply¬†trusting one’s user agreement etc, sort of taking it for granted that everything is smart and good to go and all we need to worry about is not killing other people or violating various new laws/regulations (I explain that more in my criticisms section). So the underlying thinking driving (pun intended, sadly) this idea, to me, seems a bit utopian and optimistic, sort of leaving much critical thought out of the equation in favor of expediency and corporate liability-avoidance.

Other Downsides:

There were many items in the manual that were meant to indicate the various legal and regulatory issues one would face in owning and operating a driverless vehicle. This component was to my mind a kind of mini version of the various agreements we sign when agreeing to software/websites/gadgets etc. Although we are reading this useful guide that makes us feel in control of our autonomous vehicle, much like our use of Facebook, there is an element of distributed ownership and liability here; I’m also thinking of the whole Kindle arrangement with Amazon wherein you don’t actually own the book per-se, but are rather sort of renting it, and therefore are not in total control of it. This to me was maybe the biggest downside to the idea itself, although I think it also added a level of realism that made the manual’s execution all the better. So, maybe that’s not much of a downside or failure as much as a huge hinderance to the future implementation of such an idea?

Here’s a few choice quotes:


“NOTE: Incorrect usage of the emergency button is a Federal offence and is subject to criminal procedings. ”

“Self-servicing your Amazon Helios:Pilot is not permitted and will invalidate your Warranty and Terms of Service agreement.”

Needless to say, the operationalization of an actual driverless car system would to my mind be very difficult and expose its owners/operators to various unforeseen, or at least poorly understood/anticipated, problems and potential legal issues. This was obviously deliberate on one hand, suggesting the various future laws related to such systems, but also had a kind of creepy quasi-endorsement of such laws to it; basically I really dislike large tech companies and the methods they use to undercut their own customers’ autonomy and privacy; Facebook/Amazon/Google would gladly throw the poor saps that buy their overly-complex driverless car systems under the bus to avoid liability, and are clearly willing to cooperate with what appear to be onerous laws governing these systems. Not a fan of the way this manual seems okay with that.

But at the same time, I don’t mean to call them out. They mention in the description on the website what their intentions were in designing this:

“The result helps:

  • Get a feel of the things you might do first and do often with your first self-driving vehicle.
  • Experience the consequences and implications of a world with self-driving vehicles.
  • Discover how Design Fiction can help you discover the unknown unknowns for your projects.”

I think it was successful in many ways, I think its more my discomfort with the notions at work here that were off-putting.



1 Comment

  1. Alex,
    In addition to what was discussed in class, the design of the Helios Pilot starter guide is an effective in its goal of teaching the reader how intuitive a self-starting, piloting, and autonomous vehicle can be. The images are easy enough to understand, and the manual’s engaging quality cloaks the fact that these vehicles have yet to exist in such as capacity that Amazon portrays. Due to the position of the manual as an essential sales pitch, the content ignores the ethical complexities presented by “smart cars” themselves.
    Further, discussion should be had on the relationship between Amazon and those who own the vehicle. Is the vehicle’s production and software owned by Amazon, or the individual who purchased or rented it? What monetary gains does a company like Amazon obtain when people start purchasing and using their cars? “Smart Cars” are a turbulent topic. A “Smart Car” owned by an online market place only adds to the complex relationship between new technologies and the people who use, abuse, and are abused by them.

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