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The joyride is over

Driverless cars are coming. The transition will be easier than you think.

By Tracy Mayor

Tuesday, 7:40 a.m. I am inching toward a bridge in my 11-year-old Honda CRV, working my way through a breakfast bar with one hand and dialing into a business call with another.

All around me, drivers are doing the same — texting, swiping through playlists, applying eyeliner, drumming on the steering wheel, barely looking where they’re going. It’s fine, because there’s nowhere to go. A digital sign at the side of the road estimates it will take us 35 minutes to travel the next 4 miles.

Welcome to driving, 2018: the polar opposite of the classic, joyful ride down a ribbon of open highway. “For a majority of Americans, driving is stressful, dangerous, costly, and time-consuming,” says Cotten Seiler, associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College and author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.

What do Americans do with activities that aren’t fun, like washing clothes and doing the dishes? We automate them. That’s why companies like Tesla, Uber, and Google-subsidiary Waymo, alongside virtually every automobile manufacturer and hundreds of startups, are furiously developing the myriad, complicated, and overlapping technologies that will someday enable autonomous vehicles.

Despite some notorious setbacks — most notably the accident last March, when an Arizona pedestrian was killed by an autonomous car operated by Uber — most technologists agree that driverless cars are inevitable. Cue the hand-wringing and pre-baked nostalgia. An Audi ad this spring imagined a future where autonomous cars were ubiquitous, sterile, and soul-crushing — and cruising in a sports car was the ultimate act of bourgeois rebellion.

It’s an interesting thought exercise (if a bit disingenuous; Audi is one of the automakers most aggressively pursuing driverless technologies). But don’t let Audi seduce you with an outdated idea. When we think about what driving really means today, we probably won’t miss it at all.

Red buttons and elevator music

That’s not to say there won’t be adjustments as autonomous cars creep inexorably into the fleet. A major one is trust: Accepting that technology can do the work that humans have always done. Even in the 1920s, when ordinary Americans began to make the momentous leap from horse-and-buggy to “horseless carriage,” there was still a driver’s seat, with a person planted in it.

So it’s useful to look back to 1900, and the advent of the automated elevator. This, too, was startling technology for its time: Without the comforting presence of an operator in uniform, riders had to trust unseen mechanisms to keep them safe. That meant elevator designers had to do some handholding. The original automatic elevators were retrofitted with large red emergency stop buttons to give riders the illusion they were still in charge. Elevator music was added to soothe and distract nervous riders.

Even so, the automatic elevator wasn’t popularly accepted until 45 years after its invention, when an elevator operator’s strike turned the tide of public perception.  

It’s hard to know whether driverless cars will take that long to catch on, or when the takeover will begin. Optimists like Lyft co-founder John Zimmer predict that driverless cars will begin sharing the road with classic vehicles as soon as 2020. Skeptics like Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab, say widespread adoption could be 30 years out, given the technical challenges and the time it would take to fully turn over the fleet.

In the interim, experts predict, we’ll see technology that siphons more and more of the work of driving to machines. And we’ll see some psychological trick work — the equivalent of red buttons in early elevators — to quell the expectations of “legacy drivers.” A new vehicle might have a steering wheel that can retract when it isn’t needed, or a brake that drivers can press with their feet, even though there’s no longer any reason, from an engineering standpoint, to put the braking mechanism on the floor.

The way we use driverless cars will also come in phases. Within a few years, we could see slow-moving autonomous units that travel along a track on city sidewalks to deliver packages, or driverless shuttles that travel short loops in dedicated lanes in city centers, as are already being tested in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

A new vehicle might have a steering wheel that can retract, or a brake that drivers can press with their feet, even though there’s no longer any reason for it.

Next could come a hybrid stage, where suburbanites actively drive the first mile of their commutes, then put their vehicles in autonomous mode to join a dedicated lane on a highway, then navigate off the highway to a pre-booked parking space — which, of course, the car will auto-park into.

Rural areas will come last, just as they were last to receive electricity or broadband internet, predicts autonomous vehicle advocate Mitch Turck. The issues are partly economic: a fully autonomous half-ton pickup would be a challenge to develop and sell in large enough numbers to recoup costs. But partly, the delay will be psychological, Turck says.

“Rural drivers,” he says, “are more likely to have that sense that ‘driving is a part of me, this is my culture.’”

The new American fantasy

It’s that mental leap, from driving to being driven, that feels like the consumer’s biggest hurdle. In rural and exurban areas, driving still can feel like independence, says Seiler, the historian. Some subcultures still put automobiles on a pedestal; think of low-riders in Southern California.

But Seiler says we’re closer than we think to the day when American identity is no longer bound up with the car. He pegs the heyday of driving from the 1920s, when Americans began to transform the landscape around the automobile, to the early 1990s, when the Interstate Highway System was considered complete — just about the time urban and suburban congestion became bad enough to affect people’s lives in earnest.

Indeed, traffic is so universally oppressive, Seiler notes, that a world without it is becoming “the new American fantasy.” Some car ads have even ditched the classic glamour shot — a high-end sedan, cruising down a stretch of California coastline — for images of cars driving fast down empty city streets.

And increasingly, the American fantasy doesn’t involve a car at all. As a signal of status and identity, Seiler says, your relationship with your vehicle has largely been replaced by your relationship with your devices.

“There used to be the feeling that you had to have a cool car, that your car should say something about you, but young people today don’t need a car to be social, or even to be in a different place,” Seiler says. “Kids are free and mobile through their devices, and their online presence is where they ‘are.’”

Driverless cars are the logical extension of that idea, says Taşkın Padır, director of the Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory (RIVeR Lab) at Northeastern University. For a digitally-savvy commuter, he notes, there could be no better tool. “The driverless car will become your office,” he says. “You can work, have a teleconference, while you commute.”

Padir notes that Uber and Lyft have already begun to turn Americans away from their own automobiles: “I drive my car to work,” he says, “but I don’t take it out midday if I have an appointment, not when parking is such a problem. I pay the fee for a ride share.”

And he predicts that future generations might not miss the car at all. “Kids these days are already not driving as much,” he says. “I can’t see my 5-year-old needing to get a driver’s license.”

Padir and other advocates also point to public benefits of driverless cars, from easing urban congestion to giving elderly, low-income, and mobility-challenged citizens equal access to transportation. And, of course, there’s safety, since the vast majority of the 1.25 million deaths from automobile accidents worldwide are caused by human error.

But as autonomous vehicles take over the roads, those logical arguments will probably take a back seat — so to speak — to emotion. As a population, we’ve already begun to shift from seeing driving as something you do to something you consume, a service rather than a skill. For most of us, the fun is already gone — driving is expensive, inconvenient, dangerous, and oftentimes, compulsory. Seen in that light, real independence isn’t the feeling of opening the rag-top of your Mustang on the highway, but the freedom from havingto drive.

Some evangelists have already glimpsed that future. At a panel discussion on driverless cars last March at the Cambridge (Mass.) Innovation Center, Heidi Wyle, CEO of the startup Venti Technologies, described the experience of a recent test drive in gushing terms.

“The feeling of relaxation I had being ferried around by an autonomous vehicle,” she said, in the tone of a busy woman given an unexpected gift, “I felt like I was on a 10-minute vacation.”

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Tracy Mayor is a writer and editor based in the Boston area.

Illustration by Mengxin Li


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