Some unexpected ways that self-driving cars will change America

I've been thinking and writing a bit about the advent of self-driving vehicles and how they will change things like safety and liability for accidents. But driverless vehicles will change more than our chances of dying in a car wreck - they may change how we perceive each other.

This past weekend, my wife and I witnessed another driver make one of the stupidly reckless, me-first maneuvers that are commonplace occurrences around the nation's capital. Nothing out of the ordinary there. When I'm on the job, running with lights and sirens, I see people behave in ways that are so frustrating that it can leave me questioning humanity. Most people try to get out of the way the best they can. But a few cut me off, try to outrun me, or get the jump on everyone else by drafting behind me. Some just sit there, blocking traffic, and take no apparent action that would help an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency. It's not their emergency, after all.

When we witnessed the latest instance of bad driving, my wife said "We need self-driving cars, now." It reminded me of this article from the resident of a town where Google is testing out their self-driving vehicles. By his account, the cars are cautious, obey the law without fail, and give pedestrians a lot of room. Another observation: the cars are so careful that other people have learned you can cut them off in traffic when changing lanes.

People tout the safety and efficiency benefits that automatic cars would bring: you can pack far more of them on to overloaded highways, and route them to minimize commute times for everyone (more about that in another post). It's been predicted that they'll cut traffic accidents by 90%, which will likely reduce the current socially-tolerated roadway carnage of over 36,000 annual deaths.  

But what will they do to our souls? Americans equate cars to freedom, to movement and liberty. We love the road, love our cars... and hate other drivers. Driving to work is like being forced to hang out on the comment boards of youtube, or the more unpleasant corners of reddit: you're packed in with a bunch of anonymous strangers who seem determined to behave in the most stupid or meanly opportunistic ways possible. 

The current popularity of zombie movies & TV shows is no great surprise: we're constant participants in a madcap scramble amidst people who appear to have lost their minds. We're daily survivors of the driving dead. 

As self-driving cars begin to appear on the road, expect them to be harassed, exploited, and abused. They'll be the Google Glasses of the street. Their owners will be mocked, their masculinity (and perhaps humanity) questioned.

Then, something will happen. Enough of the vehicles will be among us that a strange shift will take place. People commuting in a self-driving car, sliding along at a mutually-beneficial pace with other vehicles, will look out of their window and see other people. Not zombies, perhaps, but people. Because they're locked in a regulated traffic pattern, they may pace each other the whole way into the city. The gulf between cars will be narrower than it is now. They'll be neighbors for the whole trip. Someone will roll down a window, maybe, and yell a good-natured insult about whatever sports team's logo is plastered on the rear bumper. Freed from the soul-crushing grind that driving is becoming for many people, they won't default to hatred and alienation. 

Or, because this is the U.S., that other person might take out a gun and begin shooting.

But not necessarily. 

As I write it, this sounds like some kind of utopian vision in which sameness makes us all better people. That kind of thing has been skewered in so many dystopian novels that I wonder why we're so terrified of equality. But that's a question for another day. In the meantime, we're on the verge of a revolutionary change in how we move around, which may revolutionize transportation the way the Internet has altered our handling of information. Could it also make us better people?