We’re going to ban human-operated cars. Yes, all of them.
Meet the Volkswagen Sedric: He'd be happy to drive you to work. Credit: CTK Photo/Petr Mlch   

I’ve been writing about driverless cars for a few years now. I’ve been thinking about them for a lot longer. Dreaming of them, I guess. You see, for anyone of my generation (‘Generation X’), the future’s been a long time coming.

There’s almost nothing in today’s world that wasn’t around in my childhood – albeit in a less sophisticated and more expensive form. Getting the internet was a big deal, but beyond the opening of cyberspace, the world isn’t so very different to how it was forty years ago. Certainly, the changes I’ve lived through are much less significant than those my parents or grandparents lived through by the time they got to my current age.

Driverless cars, however, make me feel like the future is finally happening. And, yes, this technology really is just around the corner – in some cities, quite literally.

The prototypes are out on the road and they’re even letting journalists take them for a test drive. For instance here’s David Leonhardt of the New York Times:

“With the car traveling 40 miles an hour on a busy road in the Washington suburbs, I pushed a button to activate the driverless mode and moved my foot away from the brake and accelerator. The car kept its speed. Soon, a traffic light in the distance turned red, and the cars in front of me slowed. For a split second, I prepared to slam on the brake.

“There was no need. The cameras and computers in the Volvo recognized that other cars were slowing and smoothly began applying the brake. My car came to a stop behind the Ford ahead of me. I began laughing, even though no one else was in the car, as my anxiety turned to relief.”

The model that Leonhardt took for a spin, a Volvo S90 sedan, is better described as “semi-driverless” – i.e. for part of the time he drove, at other times he could choose to let the car drive itself.

This, he argues, is how people will overcome their very natural concerns about the technology:

“…researchers at Penn and Chicago also studied the circumstances in which people get comfortable with computer control, and found a theme: When the choice isn’t all or nothing — when people have ‘even a slight amount’ of control — they are more open to automation.

“That’s where driving is headed. The shift will be gradual, not sudden, as Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, told me. Cars will handle many tasks, while a human driver will have override power.”

And yet, as I’ve pointed out before, there will come a time when government will feel compelled to enforce automation. That’s because there are so many lives at stake:

More than 37,000 Americans died in crashes last year, most from human error.”

One might assume that hugely more media attention will be paid to the few deaths caused by computer error. But I’m not so sure. Imagine a future where cars can either be human-driven or computer-driven at the discretion of the human driver. Assuming that human error is much more frequent than computer error, every death caused by the former will be seen not as an accident, but as a needless act of gross irresponsibility – akin to driving while using a mobile phone or while under the influence.

Governments will come under intense pressure to make human drivers switch to ‘autopilot’ wherever and whenever the technology makes this a viable option. Leonhardt draws a parallel to gun control:

“The death count from cars exceeds that from guns. So if you are outraged by guns and want things to change, you should feel the same about car crashes.”

This is a really interesting comparison. Driving a car may not seem to be in the same category as carrying a gun, but both are fraught with risk – while engendering a paradoxical sense of control (not to mention enjoyment, pride and identity).

Foreigners often view American attitudes to gun ownership with incredulity. They just don’t understand the passion with which the right to bear arms is defended. However, I think that they will understand when their own governments try to stop them from driving.

Charlton Heston once declared that the government would only take his gun from his “cold dead hands”. In the next few decades, there will be those who clutch the steering wheel with equal determination – and they’ll be just as wrong not to let go.