It seems that self-driving vehicles will be with us quite soon. Google has been practising letting go of the wheel on its autonomous cars for some time now, Nissan has recently promised self-driving cars by 2020 and Cadillac's "super-cruise" semi-automated driving system could be seen on production models within the decade.
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This is digital technology taking over a complex human task that just about everyone can master. Driving a car involves the body and the mind, it uses the interplay of senses along with the motor capacity of three or four limbs. Being able to drive a car has long been a rite of passage into adulthood for modern teenagers, as they take responsibility for a machine that can, and sometimes does, kill people.
The sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about the "de-civilising process" that came with the introduction of the motorcar and which led to a frightening increase in deaths and injuries. But what fascinated Elias was how the civilising process of human societies — the development of the social norms that reduce violent deaths amongst citizens — led to a declining number of road deaths, even as the numbers of cars and the number of miles driven rose year by year.
The development of safer cars and traffic management has contributed to the reduction in road deaths that continued in the western industrialised societies until very recently but Elias argued that the civilising effect was about individuals increasing their capacity for foresight, self-control and affect inhibition. In other words, people had to learn to anticipate not only the road ahead but also how they'd cope with a range of unforeseen circumstances. They have to learn not to be distracted and, above all, not get carried away by the excitement of speed and risk taking. For Elias the civilising effect of the car was about internalising responsibility towards people who were not known to us, not part of the family or local community.
The rise of the car has in many ways shaped the development of modern societies, not only in the way cities and suburbs have grown, but also in the way our society has changed. The ability to travel further independently has extended the range of who we might meet and who we can keep in touch with. It is true that the critical theorists like Marcuse saw the road system as cramping the freedom of the modern individual, directing them to move and act in particular ways but even so the car was for people in the 20th century a way to express themselves and connect with others.
The self-driving car could change us again. Once it can be trusted as much as a chauffeur or taxi driver (yes, there was a pre-digital way in which the rich could treat the car as "autonomous"), then passengers will be able to snooze, read the paper, drink coffee or alcohol, chat with friends… or work while they travel. The self-driving car, as envisaged by Google's Sebastian Thrun, will not only be safer but will allow more cars on the same roads because they could drive in narrower lanes without collisions.
Tourists will be able to set the controls for the Costa del Sol and tuck themselves in until they're at the beach. All those lorry drivers criss-crossing the motorways of Europe and America will be put out of work and it won't only be the metre in a taxi cab that is automatic. The police and ambulance services won't have so much to do and the motel will become redundant. And workers will be able to work all the way on the commute to work. The autocar will also be more environmentally efficient than a human driver once it has been set to minimise the use of fuel.
But then, relieved of the effort of driving, won't those who can afford it take more journeys? Moving people and things by bus, coach, lorry and van will be much cheaper when there are no drivers' wages to pay. So won't this mean we can move more things and more people more miles for the same money?
What's more, the civilising effect of cars, as described by Elias, may well be lost. We will lose the obligation to take notice of other peoples' rights to the road and the opportunity to judge who to give way to, who is dangerous, and who is just careless or incompetent. The smiles and nods between drivers, the sociable nature of interaction through the windscreen will disappear. We'll lose responsibility for our mobility to whoever programmes the machines and with it we will lose some of our status as modern citizens and members of society. Cars that we drive are ours, cars that drive us are somewhat inhuman.
Tim Dant is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.