The general consensus seems to be that self-driving cars are inevitable, that the barriers are technical rather than epistemologicical. I suspect that the widespread use of self-driving cars may mark the end of an era of post-war culture and society.
A self-driving car that requires no human operators will undoubtedly be safer, more reliable, and therefore much less sexy. When cars become, even more than they are now, just a device to move you from A to B, the mid-century romance associated with them disappears. Can you imagine Chuck Berry writing about a Tesla CommuterMax 9000? Where is heaven, if not the back seat of my Cadillac? This may be the last moment in history that having a driver’s licence in Australia or the USA is near-mandatory. I believe that the rate of licence take-up is declining in American teenagers already.
The logical next step is the airline industry. Planes are half automatic already, it can’t take too much extra technology to make them fully machine-driven. Besides, we already have drones. It’s been a long time since air travel was glamorous, but automated aircraft will make an Airbus something literal, and equally boring.
I remember visiting London in 2010 and being quite amazed that the Dockands Light Rail didn’t have a human driver. I hadn’t realised that it was driverless until I boarded at the very front carriage and found that instead of a driver’s cabin there was a window onto the track in front. Less than ten years later, this is unremarkable in many cities of the world.
That is only the beginning. The obvious safety and effiency advantages of driverless vehicles mean that no amount of legislation, employee unions, or technical hitches will stop them becoming near-universal. Probably sooner than we think. Right now is probably the last time that choosing to become a transport worker or pilot or is a reasonable career move.
And maybe, if you buy a brand new car now and look after it carefully, it might be the last one you ever drive.