Self-driving car from I, Robot
Self-driving car from I, Robot, courtesy 20th Century Fox

I know.  It almost sounds blasphemous.  Imagine, a car that drives itself, as do the cars in my novel Sarcology.  No input from a driver, other than telling the car your destination.  Then turning your back on the car until it tells you you’ve arrived.  It’s crazy.  No car could drive as well as you can.  No car could get you where you’re going faster or easier than you can.  And no robot could be a safer driver than you.

Yet, robotics technology is improving by leaps and bounds every day.  Google, using the latest in computers, GPS and sensory technology, has created a car that has run so safely over the past year (one accident, caused by the other car) that two states have decided to make self-driving cars legal on their streets.  Other states are already looking them over, as other car makers and experimenters are working on their own self-driving car technology.  And in every state, many drivers now gladly watch in hands-off mode as cars park themselves.  The writing is on the traffic sign.

And you still don’t want cars to drive you around?  Well, maybe you just haven’t thought it through.

First of all, today’s drivers are having enough trouble driving themselves… what with wanting to carry on conversations, talk on cellphones, eat snacks, put on makeup, check Facebook pages, text buddies, watch YouTube videos… and dodge all of the other drivers doing these things so much that they’re paying as little attention to the road as you.  Drivers have achieved sensory overload, to the extent that they are paying too little attention to the most statistically hazardous activity in their lives… driving.

And what about those of us who enjoy driving… exactly where can you do that?  Between traffic, speed limits, torn-up roads and obstacles, etc, there are precious few places where a driver can “open ‘er up” and really enjoy the driving experience.  Might as well let a robot do it, for all the fun it is in reality.

And as robotics tech improves, we are seeing self-drive cars are safer than human drivers, causing and getting caught in fewer accidents.  Robotic vehicles can check their surroundings against GPS data and their own internal maps, finding ways around traffic tie-ups, accidents and blocked routes more efficiently than human drivers.  They do the thinking, the car gets where it’s going.

And all you have to do is ride with it.

Imagine your own car being essentially like a cab that you own, equipped much like a tiny family room with all of your favorite stuff.  As the car does the hard and dangerous work of driving, you can sit back, play video games, browse the web, read, have a beer, take a nap, engage in a conversation, even make out.  Or you can carry on business, make conference calls, study the report you’re delivering, google your client info, have a cocktail, polish your presentation, or make out with your business partner.  (Wanna get busy?  Hope you have tinted windows.)  And you can do all of this, knowing that you are in safer hands than your own.  The car can even search and find the most convenient parking spot and do a better parking job than you can.  Heck, it could drop you off at the door, and then park itself and wait for you to summon it back… door-to-door service, at your command.

driverless taxiIn Sarcology, people are essentially chauffeured, either in their own self-driving cars, or in self-driving cabs, which are also ubiquitous in 2040s Atlanta.  Human-driven cars are not allowed anywhere near a city, because of the hazardous realities of human drivers, and about the only thing affected by this development is the inability to break traffic laws to get to your destination.  In exchange, passengers can rotate the seats to face each other or sit alongside, and engage in whatever activity they desire along the way, whether it’s talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, or even sex.  (Yes, it happens in the book.  Now stop asking!)

It’s not hard to imagine early adopters really going for this technology.  I’d bet some hot-shot entertainment stars and other frivolous big-spenders would be among the first to buy themselves self-driving cars, just for the pleasure of stepping out of a non-human-driven car and showing them off.

But soon, the practicality of the idea would show through: We’d see older people, whose age has made it unsafe for them to do the driving, buying these cars to get themselves around.  I could also see a few well-off parents buying a self-driving car for their children, giving the robot the job of getting them to and from school and after-school activities.  And once self-driving cars become that ubiquitous, it won’t be long before ordinary citizens start using them.

The cars would also be a boon to the physically handicapped, many of whom are incapable of driving themselves about.  Imagine a blind man getting to work in a self-driving car, or a paraplegic being driven directly to his therapist’s office.  Can’t deny the utility of that.

Eventually, the inherent safety of these vehicles will become a major issue, as people still die in traffic accidents more often than from any other cause in the United States.  It should only be a matter of time, therefore, before the government mandates their use in all congested areas… basically, on any major or heavily-traveled road.  When only self-driving cars can travel in the cities, and later, the suburbs, more people will be buying self-driving cars… or getting as close to the city as they can, and transferring to self-driving cabs—which they will probably like a lot more than today’s cabs, driven by strangers, often with minimal command of the language and doubtful traffic knowledge and driving skills.

Yes, if you stop and think about it, it’s hard not to imagine a day when we will gladly give up the distracting, dangerous task of driving to robots, whether the government makes us do it or not.  In fact, it’s hard not to look forward to it.  The more I wrote about self-driving cars in Sarcology, the more I found myself aching to have one.  And I honestly believe that, if you really thought about it… you’d ache for them too.

Additional: Futurist Thomas Frey’s take on the subject is here.