The driverless car revolution is picking up steam in Israel. Mobileye, the Jerusalem based startup that MIT ranks sixth on their list of the world’s “50 Smartest Companies” has started working with several big-name automakers including Audi, BMW, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo, and they are not alone. This past march, 14 Israeli companies visited San Francisco and Silicon Valley to showcase their technology at the Connected Car Dele.
It is no surprise that Israeli companies are taking the lead in the autonomous vehicle sector. Israel is often called the “startup nation,” and for good reason: in 2015, the total of new Israeli startups rose to roughly 1,400 — that’s more startups per capita than any other country in the world. But autonomous vehicles are not just the latest “startup fad” in Israel. On a practical level, they are of the utmost and timely importance to the Jewish nation. At the same time, they also manage to reflect some of Judaism’s timeless and deeply held values.
From a national security perspective, the advancement of driverless cars will immediately help in the struggle to reduce Israeli reliance on foreign oil. In 2013, the legislature set a goal of reducing Israel’s oil dependence in the transportation sector to 40 percent by 2025; as of May 2016, a full 99% of Israel’s oil was still coming from foreign suppliers. Switching over to autonomous vehicles would not only hasten the goal by bringing us deeper into the age of the electric car, but it would also make that shift away from dependency exponentially faster, reducing traffic up to 500%. Saving money and reducing reliance on Israel’s enemies would be enough to explain the Israeli interest in driverless cars.
But there is more.
Of course, there are the obvious “Jewish law” type benefits. Driverless cars can make it easier for the elderly or disabled to attend synagogue during the week — instead of walking or waiting for rides, the autonomous vehicles have the ability to grant or restore a certain level of independence. They can also make life easier for patients and medical care professionals on Shabbat. Even if these machines do not become accepted for general Shabbat use (which they likely would not, as there are complex halachic considerations involved), they fall right in line with the current Zomet Institute model of electric mobility devices for those in serious need. (One could easily imagine a Shabbat mode on these devices, and for the medical professionals who do need to drive on Shabbat, they can represent a further level of gramma, or indirect operation.) They can even allow for the study of Torah on long and otherwise boring commutes.
But there are several other considerations bearing on why the Jewish nation is and should continue to be at the forefront of this technology that are worth noting.
Genesis Chapter 1 tells us that man is meant to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and have dominion over all other creatures. Judaism has often seen this ethical imperative as an invitation to partner with God in the development and cultivation of new and exciting technological advances. And yet there has always been somewhat of a tension between the commandment to develop the universe to the best of our ability — which sometimes has led to pollution and the destruction of valuable natural resources — and the verse in the very next chapter that claims that humans were put in the Garden of Eden (and presumably also sent to earth) to serve it and to guard it. Driverless cars represent one of the most important breakthroughs in the struggle to solve and resolve that primordial tension, because the next level of technological innovation actually manages to promote both progress and protection at the very same time.
For the amount of energy used in the consumption of one gallon of gas, driverless cars can go as far as 119 miles. As mentioned above, sharing information between vehicles on the road can lead to drastically reduced commute times. This unprecedented increase in efficiency squared will lead to uncharted energy conservation based on innovative human advancement, the perfect balance that God seemingly intended.
But wait, there’s even more.
Roughly 1,170,000 lives around the world are lost every year due to human errors while driving, and anywhere from 20-50 million people are injured annually. Judaism places a particularly high religious value on preemptive accident avoidance — there is a positive commandment from Deuteronomy 4:15 to “guard your lives very much” which most commentators read as an obligation to stay safe. Leviticus 19:6 commands us not to stand by our fellow’s blood, and the Talmud in Shabbat 54b notes that “Those who have the capacity to eliminate a wrong and do not do so bear the responsibility for its consequences.” Driverless cars can eliminate the vast majority of those deaths, and those injuries, which serves the Jewish value of tikkun olam — making the world a better (and safer!) place.
And so it is no surprise that Israel is leading the charge on putting driverless cars on the road. This new technology will save the country money, reduce its reliance on enemies, and further Israel’s traditional values of sanctity, safety, and environmentally responsible innovation.
Here’s to hoping that the startup nation never slows down.