Power. It is this word, and the experience of using what it means, that will be the biggest impediment to automatic driving. I know that because I drive all the time. Driving is power. I get behind the wheel of my powerful vehicle, and I am instantly in total control of almost three tons of moving steel, plastic and glass. I push on the gas, and the thing goes. It goes as much as I want it to. It goes at the speed I make it go. It stops with my moves, under my control. Notice all the uses of the word “I” in the above description. You know, I am not a very powerful person on the planet. The secret service does not protect me, and other people seldom do what I tell them to do unless I give them a lot of money, in which case I make them feel powerful at my expense. But that vehicle. There are rules out there about every part and direction of its use, but it is my decision to obey or break those rules. I can risk getting caught breaking them all I want, and also be ready to pay the price. I can go a hundred miles per hour if I choose, and blast from zero to sixty in less than six seconds. I don’t do those things, but it makes me feel hugely powerful to know I can do them with no notice at all, and without anybody stopping me. I can drink while I drive, or before, if I want to. I don’t, but I can, or could if I want. I can go places without anybody knowing who I am, unless they know my car intimately, which most don’t. I can wave and laugh at people, or give them the finger and move on. Where else in life do I have that kind of power? Nowhere. Not even close. I am supposed to give up what little power I have, and what fun I have in deciding to exercise it, for what? Automatic driving? Always getting there in one piece? Always obeying the law? Going slower, but getting there faster? My car is not mostly about transportation. It’s about me being and feeling like a real human being, instead of a controlled, employed, honored, watched and supervised gerbil.
What will happen with the slow easing out of human drivers from behind the wheel?
Auto insurance companies will cease to exist, as they are forced to transition away from being what they are today. There will be no accidents for them to provide ‘coverage’ for. All the members of the legal community deriving a living from traffic accident liability will go away. Highway patrolmen will become unemployed or have to transition. All police forces will have to transition and downsize, because servicing and working with people in automobiles is sixty percent of their current contact with the public. Drunk driving will no longer exist as a crime or even an infraction. All the courts and attorneys and prosecutors set up to handle traffic contact crime, including drunk driving, will disappear. The shape of vehicles will change dramatically as people realize that they no longer have to stare forward through the front windshield (in terror or worry), while on the road. The outside appearance of vehicles will standardize and move away from being social standing statements like they are today. Street sign companies will go out of business. Paid parking will slowly disappear. Airlines will have to accommodate a much more efficient and faster competitor on the ground, with short haul airlines disappearing completely, and the bigger ones having to go back to providing more service and a better attitude. Vehicles will become all electric because of energy efficiency, and the elimination of a need for high acceleration or top speed being built into them. Most car repair operations and car parts businesses will fail, as electric cars need almost no maintenance outside of brake pads and tires (the first service on a Tesla is at 100,000 miles!). WiFi will be extended to cover all highways in the country, with vehicles designed more as traveling work and play stations, than as human cargo containers. Restaurants and ‘care’ centers will spring up to allow long haul travelers to stop along the way and be entertained, fed and rested (this will be a rare ‘throw-back’ experience initiated by the coming technology). The location of all vehicles, and the people in them, will be known on databases by all governmental authorities, at all times. Taxes will be for miles traveled by a person instead of by vehicle movement. There will be no toll roads. ‘All weather roads’ will become the rule, instead of the rare exception. All paid drivers; bus, truck and car, will have to transition to other employment.
Early in the twentieth century the invention of the automobile brought about the single largest social change to all cultures participating in the industrial revolution. It brought freedom, anonymity and unrestricted movement to almost every human being who had the means to purchase, rent or borrow one. The coming move to automatic driving is going to herald in social change just as galvanic and monumental as the original invention did. However, it will also bring much less freedom, more monetary accountability and near total surveillance of all humans involved in its existence.
These changes are coming in the name of financial efficiency and safety. Will they be the kind that initiate and spur on growth and development like the original invention did? As yet there is not answer to that question, just as there was absolutely no ability to predict what subsequent changes to the social order the automobile’s invention would bring. Once invented, there was no stopping the impact of the automobile revolution. Automatic driving has been invented. There will be no stopping it either, no matter how anyone might feel about its coming.
The gains of civilization from humanity’s earliest origins have been a gain founded upon group behavior and the limiting of individual behavior whenever such behavior infringes on the rights and freedoms of the larger group. The invention of the automobile allowed for a huge expansion and enhancement of individual freedom. Automatic driving is going to reel that freedom back in.
Only human beings alive right now will remember the power they once had, or even know it really existed as such. Future humans, as yet unborn, will never have a clue that anything has been lost.