Do we have the “right” to drive cars? That’s the premise of a new organization called the Human Driving Association (HDA), founded by a brash character named Alex Roy, who claimed to have beaten the cross-country record of the Cannonball Run. That event caught the public imagination and became a popular movie series.
In 2006, Roy crossed the United States, driving a BMW M5, in thirty-one hours and four minutes. Pardon me if I don’t put this accomplishment on a pedestal next to the invention of aspirin and the ballpoint pen.
Before I answer the question of whether we have a right to drive, let me state that I’m a confirmed “car guy” who subscribes to car magazines, tinkers with them in his garage, owns four of them (at the moment, all with manual gearboxes), and loves reading and talking about their colorful history.
But, no, we don’t have an inherent right to drive. And I oppose fiercely the idea of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that right “within the limits of safety technologies that do not infringe upon our freedom of movement,” as the HDA puts it. The Human Driving folks are feeling threatened by the most logical approach to autonomous cars, which—if the cards fall that way—will be shared, not owned. And they’ll most certainly not be driven by people, but by computers.
If cars had no harmful impact on society, people would have a right to own them, the same way they own, say, garden rakes. But they have major impacts, on safety and the environment. In the U.S., they killed 37,133 people in 2017. Globally, 1.25 million people die annually.
The HDA addresses this by proclaiming that it’s pro-technology and pro-safety, supporting Advanced Drivers Assistance Systems (ADAS) like collision avoidance and tougher standards for driver’s licenses.
The fact is that cars are far safer than they’ve ever been before, but the U.S. death toll hasn’t changed much. If we go back to 1983, before airbags, antilock brakes and any ADAS stuff, the number of highway fatalities was 42,589. Not a huge difference. Blame a lot more cars on the road and double the vehicle miles traveled—from 1.65 billion miles in 1983 to 3.21 billion in 2017. And fallible people behind those steering wheels.
And automobiles contribute mightily to both ground-level ozone (smog) and climate change. In the U.S., transportation generates 28 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Globally, it’s 15 percent. I just got back from China, where the effects of cars are felt not only in the gridlock that chokes major cities, but also in the terrible air pollution that makes it hard to breathe.
We don’t have a right to do something that harms the planet for future generations. I know that sounds like a platitude, but it’s literally true—CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere for one hundred years. Climate change is totally transforming our planet, mostly not in good ways.
A story by Roy includes a picture of a steering wheel, with the caption “From my cold, dead hands.” But automakers are already developing cars without pedals, steering wheels, turn signal stalks, and anything else needed by human drivers. What they will have is seating arrangements meant to encourage working and playing while on the go, meaning billions of lost productivity and fun time restored to us.
Measure that against the undeniable pleasure lots of people, including me, get from driving. Roy again:
Even if self-driving cars work perfectly, human driven cars—and especially human-owned cars—serve a purpose no AI-controlled pod can, at any price, even for free. It's not hard to understand what it is, or why it matters so much. Cars aren't just tools, or even beautiful tools. They are organic forms, speaking to us literally, figuratively and subliminally. Cars help us see the world, and be seen within it. They expand our boundaries, and close the gap between our true and perceived selves.
I can see how cars and trucks meant freedom when they made it easy for farmers to get into town, for kids to get to school, and enabled suburban living. And they’re fun. But we’re headed toward two billion cars, and despite our faster pace of life (and faster cars!), traffic congestion means that commuting times are going up, not down. Building more roads doesn’t solve the problem; it exacerbates it.
The ACES car—autonomous, connected, electric, and shared—promises to solve many of these problems all at once. Unless the technology fails, self-driven cars won’t crash, and if they’re shared, we can drastically cut down on the number of cars we’ll need—maybe by half. Today’s cars sit vacant 95 percent of the time.
And these self-driving cars are almost certain to be electric, which means no tailpipes and no local air pollution or CO2. Generating electricity pollutes, of course, but less and less as we transition to a cleaner grid. Electrifying the car fleet obviously will take them out of the equation as on-the-road polluters, but it doesn’t address the safety issues and gridlock questions.
In an ACES world, we can’t just give license to people who want to keep driving their cars. That’s like letting people smoke in waiting rooms and airplanes. That said, driving will probably survive under controlled conditions, in restricted locations such as race tracks.
While I think it’s going to go this way, I can’t say when. If you’re worried about people coming for your keys, relax. Given the state of play and—especially—the need for a stable regulatory framework and insurance rules, we won’t see an autonomous world for at least a decade, maybe more, and even then the transition to full autonomy will take years (as the switch from horses to horseless carriages did).
In the meantime, we can have calm, rational discussions about these issues, and where we want to go as a society. Why not? See how well it works in talking about gun control?
Here's a capsule history of the Cannonball Run—the actual race: