The story of the automobile is the story of modern America. The assembly line perfected by Henry Ford for his Model T changed industrial manufacturing.
The automobile expanded freedom of movement. It led to the interstate highway system, changed the rhythms of life, and influenced popular culture.
More than any other invention, it put Americans figuratively and literally in the driver’s seat, consigning the old ways to a glimpse in the rear-view mirror. But what if technology yanked that independent driver from behind the wheel, making him or her just another passenger?
This is not fanciful. Domestic and import automakers are competing to develop self-driving vehicles, some of them directed by computers assisted by lasers and radar. The goal is to develop an autonomous vehicle that can navigate highways more safely than humans can.
That isn’t such a high bar. Some 30,000 people are killed in crashes on the nation’s roads every year; 2.3 million are injured enough to need emergency room visits. Computer-driven cars can surely do better than the incompetent, aggressive, drunk, or distracted people who now turn up behind the wheel.
Those who have ridden in driverless cars say they do well at stopping at stop signs and red lights, keeping to the speed limit, changing lanes, and braking for reckless human drivers. As it is, computers in modern cars can correct drivers’ mistakes right now. As early as 2020, the full driverless model may become a reality.
Then new questions of cultural change will arise in society: How will the legal system respond? Will it be OK to text in the driver’s seat of a car when the person there is not the driver?
Will drinking and nondriving be allowed when the car is driving itself? Could car and computer makers be sued when their inventions, which could save thousands of lives, break down and cause the loss of a single life?
What will teenagers who yearn to drive fast and loudly do when a computer is in charge as vehicular nanny? Will people of all ages feel that the freedom of the open road has become the slavery of the road driven by computer?
Researchers’ work has a huge potential to do good, but the technology may be the least of their problems. American identity itself is standing in the road.