Let’s get this out of the way: yes, autonomous cars will absolutely be mandatory some time between 2035-2045, at least on certain types of roads and highways, and no, they will not suck. In fact, they will be awesome.
And that’s a very good thing. Because, you see, we humans are pretty poor drivers, losing an estimated 3,000 souls per month just in the U.S. That’s a 9/11 tragedy every single month.
But before you start complaining that you love cars and driving — so do I — and that you even enjoy taking your car to your local auto club track days — so do I — and that driving is essentially a fundamental right that cannot be taken away from us — well, it isn’t really, but ok, sure — and that autonomous cars are going to kill us — they’re not; in fact, they’re already saving us from ourselves — I’m going to ask you to just stop what you’re worrying about, and think about one thing:
Yes, horses. Because you see, horses have much in common with the automobile: they’re big, they’re powerful, they live inside our engines to produce our cars’ horsepower, and they’re remarkably stupid. This then makes for a woefully dangerous combination, which, frankly, explains at least one of the reasons the automobile eventually replaced them around the second decade of the 20th century. Cars were just better.
Owning a car will be “like owning a horse.”
As Elon Musk said recently, owning a non-autonomous car will be “like owning a horse.” And he’s right.
In order to understand this though, and assure you this is not just some flippant example of hyperbolic futurism gone wild yet again, let’s work backwards:
Serious petrol heads complained when semi-automatic transmissions came out. They complained when electronic stability was launched. People complained about those horribly restrictive things called seat belts. And yes, once upon a time, people even complained when cars started sputtering about town and startling the horses.
Yet little by little, every one of these evolutions was soon mandated by law, not simply because they were nice to have, but because they were necessary to enhance the safety of everyone on the road.
Autonomous cars are really an evolutionary thing more than they’re revolutionary.
Autonomous cars — revolutionary though they may seem now — are really not so fantastic a thing if you really stop to think about it. Truth be told, they’re really an evolutionary thing more than they’re revolutionary: one could conceivably work backwards here, too, and argue that fully-autonomous cars came from lane-keeping systems — no, not really, but sort of — which followed shortly after radar-based active cruise control systems, which in turn followed basic passive cruise control.
The interesting thing is that if you’re reading this article chances are you fall into one of two camps: you’re either nodding along in affirmation with all that I’ve written so far, or you’re shaking your head in disgusted disapproval.
And that’s what seems so weird about this whole autonomous car transition to which we find ourselves barreling inexorably now: not only is this really the natural, obvious progression of things — even science fiction has foreseen this for decades — but it’s plainly rational.
We might as well keep prescribing cod liver oil for the flu and cover our bodies with leeches.
Stated in the inverse, to maintain — or even argue that we should maintain — the status quo, with humans at the helm of these two- and three-ton vehicles, is just plain idiotic. Or we might as well keep prescribing cod liver oil for the flu, cover our bodies with leeches when ill, and ride about in chariots. (Actually, chariots would be pretty cool, come to think of it.)
Finally, if you’re still in doubt about whether any of this makes any sense, and whether we should allow computers to drive us about — even though computers already fly our airplanes (and here)– try this simple exercise to help you better anticipate the future:
Does it really seem rational that humans should still be driving cars and dying at such alarming rates every month?
Stop and think — I mean really close your eyes and imagine — a future 50, 100, 500 years down the road. Really actually try to position yourself far ahead on our timeline. Now, ask yourself: does it really seem rational that humans should still be driving cars and dying at such alarming rates every month?
The point is, even if you don’t agree that autonomous cars are right, the fact is, you cannot possibly agree that the current state of things makes any sense either; you can’t seriously entertain the possibility that 100 years down the road — pun intended — we’ll still be driving ourselves around, forever at the risk of colliding with each other and dying miserable agonizing deaths. And if you do still disagree, well, people used to disagree with getting horses off the streets too. So you’re in good company then.
In any event, don’t worry: just as we still find places to go horseback riding today, you’ll always be able to enjoy your gasoline-powered human-driven car just for fun too. I promise.