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Looking Forward to Our Driverless Future

A podcast investigation into the approaching ascendance of autonomous cars, the hurdles that remain, and the shifting personal prospects for the license-less among us

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I recently turned 30, and I still don’t have a driver’s license.

I grew up in Manhattan, so I never needed to drive. Most destinations were within walking distance, and whenever something wasn’t, there was always a bus, train, or taxi that could take me where I wanted to go. In Manhattan, owning a car either costs a fortune or leads to a lot of time spent searching for parking.

The city made me think driving was unnecessary, and my family’s car when I was a kid — a hand-me-down, decrepit 1978 Pontiac LeMans — made me think cars were uncool. But driverless cars are cool, and they’re coming. We’re heading for a future where no one will need to drive.

The question is how far away that future is. If driverless cars come quickly enough, my procrastination never needs to end. I can keep walking, taking public transportation, or bumming rides from friends and family until the robots bail me out. And while I might be wrestling with the drive-or-don’t-drive dilemma a little earlier than most Americans, eventually everyone will.

So how close are we, really, to truly autonomous vehicles? What will the driverless world look like? And based on what we know now, should I finally learn to parallel park, or accept that I’m never going to try?

On a podcast investigation into the approaching ascendance of driverless cars (and my own prospects of never needing to drive), I heard about a few hurdles that will have to be cleared before we can do away with steering wheels. "In engineering terms we like to say that the first 95 percent of the development of any new technology takes about 5 percent of the cost," Mark Hallenbeck, the director of the Washington State Transportation Center, told me. "And the last 5 percent takes 95 percent of the cost. And that’s kind of where we are in the automated vehicle world. We’ve done the technical stuff. We haven’t done the weird exception stuff. But when you’re expecting the car to deal with those weird exceptions at 70 miles an hour and they don’t, you die."

The challenges are legal as well as technological. Bryant Walker Smith, a member of the legal faculty at the University of South Carolina, says that "historically the federal government has regulated new motor vehicle design, while states have regulated these noncommercial drivers and driving. So here we have an instance where the vehicle is becoming the driver, and that tends to blur some of the lines between the federal role and the state role."

Once we work out those issues, we might find that instead of saving us time and traffic, driverless vehicles just make us alter our behavior so that we travel more or leave later, creating congestion anyway. "Congestion will not go away until we have the Star Trek mass transporter," Hallenbeck says. "And then at 8 o’clock in the morning there will be a line outside the Star Trek mass transporter so they can beam you into your office at 7:58, because who wants to get there any earlier?"

Worse, he adds, there might be ways for trolls to derail a driverless system in ways that wouldn’t work now. "Can you imagine what happens in Manhattan when New Yorkers realize that cars can’t run them over, won’t run them over? They’ll just walk across Fifth Avenue. Now you walk across Fifth Avenue, you die. But if the cars are designed to avoid hitting you, I mean wow, talk about power shift to the pedestrian."

Lastly, transitioning to a driverless society could exact some emotional and psychological costs. "When you drive you make decisions," says John Heitmann, author of The Automobile and American Life. "You are the master of your life in many ways, you can go in any one of a number of directions. What do we lose in terms of this autonomy if we take the steering wheel away from us? How is your sense of freedom compromised?"

To hear reasons to look forward to our driverless future — and my verdict about whether or not to drive — listen to the full episode.