Like most people, I’m fairly polite in dealings with strangers. I hold doors open for people, make sure I say thank you to others who do the same; I’m patient in check-out lines and with people on the elevator… on and on. But I’ve noticed that I, and quite obviously other people, are rather less prone to manners when driving. I’m not a belligerent driver; I don’t cut people off or frequently tailgate or weave. But I do notice I don’t have a lot of patience for other drivers and I spend a good deal of the time telling other drivers how they come up short… not that they’ll ever know, of course. I think it all comes down to anonymity. When we deal with one another in public in most instances, we’re dealing with a person, as a person. But on the road, “people” effectively become dark, featureless shapes hidden inside a large, beetle-like armoured shell.
Related to this observation, I’ve recently started working in a city a considerable distance away from the one in which I live, requiring a significant amount of superhighway driving on my part. The trip home typically features a 45 minute rabbit run to a one-hour crawl across the top of the city. So what was a small part of my life has become a much larger feature of it.
So to my surprise, I find I’m reacting favourably to the news that Google is coming close to road-testing a self-driving car. More amazing still is the news that the UK, California, Nevada, and Florida have all passed enabling legislation clearing the way for such vehicles on the road. I find myself encouraged by the idea that we’re approaching a time when personality, emotion, and (to be blunt) plain pig-headed bloody-mindedness will no longer be features of driving. One of the things I enjoyed about taking the bus and subway to work a few years ago was being able to sit back, read, and leave the responsibility to someone else. So much the better if the “someone else” is a bunch of computers checking with one another thousands of times a second and working out the mechanics of traffic flow, able to brakes much more quickly and reliably than any human being. Want to get an extra 15 minutes of sleep on the way to work? Do it! Want to keep plowing through that unput-downable novel? Go for it! Want to get completely faced on Friday night? Absolutely! You’re not driving; the car is. I’m looking forward to this in the future. Frankly, if we were developing the automobile today instead of back in the 1880s, there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s no way, no way, that governments would let us get our hands on a steering wheel and feet on an accelerator.
I heard yesterday that a government agency in the US estimated the annual cost of car accidents to the US to be $870 billion dollars. That’s a staggering figure. I don’t imagine that computerized driving will completely eliminate accidents. But, I’m inclined to think they will become considerably rarer, and stand to be less severe in scope and magnitude when they do occur. I hope this is a technology that comes on sooner rather than later, and if, 20 years from now, it’s no longer permissible for people to drive cars, I think I’ll be okay with that.