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Could we drag drivers from their cars? Americans won't relinquish the steering wheel without a struggle

Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

May 9, 2019   4 mins

In October 2017, I wrote about driverless cars. I speculated that their rise would one day result in a push to ban human-driven vehicles – but not without a huge political backlash. Indeed, I compared the coming struggle to the fight over gun control in America:

“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…”

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long for ‘a right to drive’ movement to get off the ground.

Alex Roy is a rally driver, writer and activist. I’ve no reason to think he read my article, but at the time he too was thinking about the implications of driverless technology, albeit with rather more concern. In fact, as M. R. O’Connor tells us in the New Yorker, Roy has emerged as the leader of the human resistance:

“Roy started the Human Driving Association in early 2018, after reading a manifesto written by Robin Chase, the entrepreneur and former C.E.O. of Zipcar. In the manifesto, ‘Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities,’ Chase outlines a now familiar vision for autonomous driving, in which dense urban areas are filled with autonomous vehicles that operate in fleets, so as to reduce congestion and emissions… In ninety frenzied minutes, [Roy] wrote his own manifesto, which he published as an article for The Drive, an online car magazine. It begins with a picture of a steering wheel and the words ‘From my cold, dead hands,’ and culminates by calling for a constitutional amendment creating a right to drive.”

The Human Driving Association already has 10,000 members, even though there’s no immediate threat to the ‘right to drive’. Just how big could the movement get if the companies investing in driverless technology succeed in putting fully automated vehicles (AVs) on the road?

Every year, more than a million people die in traffic accidents around the world. We’ve become habituated to the slaughter. But would we be as tolerant if computerised driving systems were responsible? I doubt we’d allow robots (because that’s what driverless cars are) to kill a million people every year, or a hundred thousand for that matter. Even a death toll of 10,000 could generate hundreds of ruinous law suits. If AVs are ten or a hundred times safer than human drivers, that won’t be enough; to go mainstream they will need to be thousands of times safer.

However, if that standard is ever achieved then it will place the human right to drive under immense pressure. Every death or injury caused by human error would be seen as a completely avoidable tragedy.

Of course, the same is often said about gun deaths – which, in America, are mostly the result of accidents, suicide or criminal activity. Yet gun ownership remains deeply entrenched. Might we see the same libertarian impulse protect the right to drive?

The parallels are inexact. Firstly, there’s no constitutional amendment upholding such a right, let alone one as old as the Second Amendment (hence the campaign). Secondly, the compulsory application of AV technology would not necessarily ban car ownership. Though driverless cars may well be most conveniently accessed as a driverless taxi service, it’s conceivable that many people will choose to own one (or several) of their own, even if they aren’t allowed to drive it themselves.

Thirdly, I doubt that the prohibition on human driving will be single event. Rather, it’s more likely to be phased in gradually, with computer control of enabled vehicles being mandated in certain locations (like city centres and school vicinities) or in certain circumstances (above a given speed, or in hazardous driving conditions).

There won’t be a particular date on which human drivers are dragged kicking and screaming from the steering wheel. Rather, expect a process of ‘automation creep’ in which the driving seat gradually becomes a passenger seat. In fact, with the introduction of partially automated features like cruise control and automatic parking, the process is already underway.

O’Connor conveys Roy’s dystopian view of where this is all heading:

“In place of the driverless utopia that technologists often picture… consider another possibility: a congested urban hellscape in which autonomous vehicles are subsidized by companies that pump them full of advertising; in exchange for free rides, companies might require you to pass by particular stores or watch commercial messages displayed on the vehicles’ windows… In such a world, Roy said, ‘The joy of the ride is taken away.’”

That’s not an implausible scenario. However slow and subtle the shift, going driverless does mean individuals surrendering direct control over their mobility on a massive scale. We need to think through the implications of that for a free society.

In theory, the AV fleet operators would probably be as keen to cater to our whims as taxi firms already are. Nevertheless, AV tech (especially if it is networked) implies a road transport system where either the state or some powerful private interest would be in ultimate control.

But for all the agency that the car has given to so many, we shouldn’t forget how much it’s taken away from others. The streetscape was once a thoroughfare for everyone, the car turned it into a killing ground – a place we teach our children to be afraid of. Ending that terror could itself be seen as an act of liberation.

Expect a long and bitter fight between incompatible freedoms.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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