Early conceptions of a driverless car world spoke of catastrophe: the modern versions of the headless horseman would run amok, driving over toddlers and grandmothers with gay abandon, sending the already stratospheric death toll from automobile accidents into ever more rarefied zones, and sending us all cowering back into our homes, afraid to venture out into a shooting gallery of four-wheeled robotic serial killers. How would the inert, unfeeling, sightless, coldly calculating programs that ran these machines ever show the skill and judgment of human drivers, the kind that enables them, on a daily basis, to decline to run over a supermarket shopper and decide to take the right exit off the interstate?
Such fond preference for the human over the machinic–on the roads–was always infected with some pretension, some make-believe, some old-fashioned fallacious comparison of the best of the human with the worst of the machine. Human drivers show very little affection for other human drivers; they kill them by the scores every day (thirty thousand fatalities or so in a year); they often do not bother to interact with them sober (over a third of all car accidents involved a drunken driver); they rage and rant at their driving colleagues (the formula for ‘instant asshole’ used to be ‘just add alcohol’ but it could very well be ‘place behind a wheel’ too); they second-guess their intelligence, their parentage on every occasion. When they can be bothered to pay attention to them, often finding their smartphones more interesting as they drive. If you had to make an educated guess who a human driver’s least favorite person in the world was, you could do worse than venture it was someone they had encountered on a highway once. We like our own driving; we disdain that of others. It’s a Hobbesian state of nature out there on the highway.
Unsurprisingly, it seems the biggest problem the driverless car will face is human driving. The one-eyed might be king in the land of the blind, but he is also susceptible to having his eyes put out. The driverless car might follow traffic rules and driving best practices rigorously but such acquiescence’s value is diminished in a world which otherwise pays only sporadic heed to them. Human drivers incorporate defensive and offensive maneuvers into their driving; they presume less than perfect knowledge of the rules of the road on the part of those they interact with; their driving habits bear the impress of long interactions with other, similarly inclined human drivers. A driverless car, one bearing rather more fidelity to the idealized conception of a safe road user, has at best, an uneasy coexistence in a world dominated by such driving practices.
The sneaking suspicion that automation works best when human roles are minimized is upon us again: perhaps driverless cars will only be able to show off their best and deliver on their incipient promise when we hand over the wheels–and keys–to them. Perhaps the machine only sits comfortably in our world when we have made adequate room for it. And displaced ourselves in the process.