How Self-Driving Cars Might Change Our Roads

How Self-Driving Cars Might Change Our Roads

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.

Picture: Getty Images

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.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • the sociable nature of interaction through the windscreen will disappear
    Ha…. does this ever happen without someone giving someone else the finger. I don’t know of any friendships formed whilst on my commute. Yes, I see the same people every day pretty much, but do I talk to them or have a meaningful interaction with them. uh, no.

  • seriously though. If these things become a reality and leagalised, it would have a massive impact on how we live today. Yes, taxis would be redundant, and to catch something similar would be far cheaper. I’d envisage a company where you pay some sort of subscription and you get access to be driven somewhere etc. When it has dropped you off, it just sits there until it’s needed nearby etc. Cheaper to run than a taxi (only fuel, wear and tear, cost to cover capital and operations with some profit). Although you’d need more cars at peak times than other times.

    Also would probably reduce the need for families to have multiple cars. Only have 1 car with a “pick me up” or “drop me off” feature.

    • More people would opt for this service, as opposed to owning a car. If the system was reliable enough to pick you up at a specific time and drop you off exactly where you want, there’s no functional advantage of owning a car. The only thing that would make owning one desirable is having a higher level of luxury.

  • I really like the idea of self-driving cars, it would have significant effects on the way we live.

    Traffic congestion would be mitigated – Most traffic is caused by imperfections in human behaviour. At the moment, we have to leave a gap between cars in the same lane in case of an accident. Traffic on highways and main roads is worsened by every driver reacting to other drivers, hitting the brakes because the car in front hit theirs etc. All cars in the system were able to be controlled centrally, traffic could be tightly controlled. Chains of cars could travel in close proximity on highways as they would all be accelerating, braking and turning in unison. Where traffic flows could be controlled, intersections would work more effectively.

    Urban planning would change. Houses will no longer need big garages facing the street, with large driveways and wide streets to accommodate on-street parking and two-way flow. Suburban car parks would store all cars in the area, which can be summoned to pick people up at their house. Land would be better utilised, since less space is required for roads. Without the need for visibility, street lighting won’t be as bright. Highways and main roads could be built over, resulting in more efficient space usage and better looking cities (which won’t have large slices cut out of them by highways).

    More freedom for children, the disabled and the elderly. Children will be able to travel independently while still being safe. This saves the parents from being “mums taxi.” Disabled and elderly people who can’t drive now will still be able to go places with freedom.

    Car design will be more efficient. If every car is automatically controlled, theoretically there won’t be accidents. Cars won’t have to be designed to be safe in a collision, so they will be lighter. Moving to electric only (whether grid powered or by on-board batteries) would put the mechanical parts of the car in the floorpan, freeing up occupant space. Controls will no longer be required, further freeing up space.

    High speed highways will be a reality. Providing there is enough separation of the highway from the surroundings, there is no reason cars cannot travel at much higher speeds than today. If they form “trains” on the road, the aerodynamic drag reduction will make it efficient.

    /wall of text

  • The police and ambulance services won’t have so much to do and the motel will become redundant.
    I’m assuming that police will still need to have some sort of manual control over their cars. Assuming some sort of emergency protocol, I guess ambulances could probably function automatically.
    I’m not too sure motels will necessarily become redundant. Sleeping in a car isn’t exactly all that comfortable.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!