We’re getting very close
Google’s driverless cars had reportedly, by August 2012, driven over 300,000 miles with only one crash: being rear-ended at a traffic light by a human-controlled vehicle. Four states have, so far, permitted their testing on public highways, though admittedly under the stringent proviso at least one human occupant rides along.
Driverless cars are obviously the way most people want to go. You climb in, tell the thing your destination, then sit back and relax with Twitter, a good book or the ultimate irony, a driving game. The only people who would lament the loss of control are those for whom automobiles are much more than a utilitarian mode of transport: gearheads who prefer the heft and curve and art of driving, of being integral with a machine. And I’m sure this love affair will persist, and we’ll be regarded with the same affection currently enjoyed by the disadvantaged and underprivileged as we trudge to our segregated track days, public roads forever barred to our mundane death trap jalopies and suicidal ways. Change always forces the shedding of some devotion to the familiar, no matter how much the benefits outweigh the cost.
Eliminating road accidents is the prime virtue of this technology, which accounted for 34,000 US deaths in 2012 (1 1/4 million worldwide). Refusing to embrace it would be an act too huge and too selfish to avoid: it’ll probably become like insisting on driving drunk. Sure, there’ll be a few accidents when autonomous cars malfunction, but the technology is becoming so advanced, with so many safety features built in, it’ll likely be almost foolproof. Think of a car breaking down in the fast lane immediately beaming signals to the surrounding vehicles to coordinate avoidance maneuvers far in advance. And no one drives too fast. Or while texting. Or drunk. Or while eating (the latter statistically the most dangerous of the common behaviors engaged in behind the wheel).
Autonomous cars are ultimately inevitable, and it’s a little surprising they’re not commonplace yet, given the level of technology available. And think of the fringe benefits: shopping online and sending the car to pick it up. Digital coordination to optimize traffic flow and minimize delays. Sleeping while you travel, heck, working on your way to work…
Now hold on just a minute.