The future of driverless cars will be incremental, which is to say that we won't suddenly wake up one day to a world of chauffeur-robots. Cars will gradually continue to take over the tasks drivers do today, just as they've been doing since the advent of power steering, cruise control and automatic door locks. Next, they'll do our parking for us. Then they'll detect objects for us in our blind spots, and nudge us when we drift astray on the highway.
By the time they get around to doing the steering and the navigating, you'll likely have the option to turn those features on and off, to take control when you want to. Maybe the car will do the easy work on straight-away interstate highways, and you'll handle the weaving through downtown traffic. Then, finally, when a car comes along that can do everything, very few people will own it. After the engineers have solved for driverless cars, it will take society years to adopt them (and that's just the beginning; it will take some parts of the world much longer than others).
So we are very, very far away from the world when driverless cars that can do everything will be everywhere. But here is a provocative prediction about what will happen that day: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk argued this week that it will actually become illegal for you to drive your own car. Here is The Verge, reporting on comments Musk made Tuesday:
The simple explanation: Musk believes computers will do a much better job than us to the point where, statistically, humans would be a liability on roadways.
"I don't think we have to worry about autonomous cars, because that's sort of like a narrow form of AI," Musk told NVidia co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang at the technology company's annual developers conference today. "It would be like an elevator. They used to have elevator operators, and then we developed some simple circuitry to have elevators just automatically come to the floor that you're at ... the car is going to be just like that." So what happens when we get there? Musk said that the obvious move is to outlaw driving cars. "It's too dangerous," Musk said. "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine."
Of course, technology has transformed plenty of activities without outlawing the human-powered versions of them. The difference with cars is that the human-powered version plays a role in the deaths of about 30,000 people a year in the United States. And the very innovation of automation is to reduce that risk.
Musk's thinking is logical: If a technological advance can save lives and make society safer, why would we not mandate it? We've done so with air bags and seat belts. His comment also hints at an interesting point: We may not appreciate how dangerous cars (or, rather, their human drivers) truly are — "you can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine" — until, years from now, this line starts to approach zero:
What Musk hasn't considered, though, is that the importance of public safety here will no doubt bump up against another equally prized American value: individual freedom. And when the two conflict, we don't always chose the former. We chose, for instance, to allow widespread private gun ownership in America, despite its costs in gun violence and the prevalence of accidents.
Your right to drive a car isn't protected by a constitutional amendment. But it's a form of freedom that's deeply engrained in American culture. It's hard to imagine lawmakers ever taking it away, even in the face of persuasive safety data. Like with vaccines, driverless cars may one day create a kind of herd effect short of 100 percent adoption, and maybe we'll live with that. Maybe the cars that will be driven by computers will be able to compensate for the bad decisions of cars driven by humans.
All of this is a case for why lawmakers probably won't ban human driving. But that doesn't mean the private market won't effectively do the same. Fifty years from now, if you still want to drive your vintage 2021 Camry onto a highway humming with autonomous cars, you may have a very hard time finding insurance to do that — that is, if you can still find the car.