Controlling cars. Yes, please.

I relish the prospect of vehicles being controlled by computers rather than humans. This is not only because driving anywhere is a burdensome chore that I’d rather forgo, but because the car is one of the few remaining means by which the angry, deranged, frustrated and insane can impose themselves on others. To get such people from behind the wheel and into the passenger seat will be a boon for road safety and a blessing for society.

In my everyday life, I can safely say that I rarely encounter any form of disagreeability or rudeness, let alone conflict. Whether I’m on the street, in the store, at a public event or even at an airport (which are, apparently, notoriously stressful), I generally find others to be decent and polite. Of course, there’s the occasional sour-face and those who obviously lack social skills but, notwithstanding the miserable and the misfit, there remains a degree of accommodation and mutuality in most social interactions that precludes dispute, anger and malicious intent.

The two prominent exceptions to this general civility are the internet and driving. Online and on-road exchanges are similar in that they both offer anonymity, a perceived lack of consequences for wrongdoing, and direct access into the lives of others. The phenomenon of online opprobrium is for another time and so for now the focus is on the car.

The car is a fascinating machine, in that it brings out the worst in so many people. It compels some individuals to drive as fast and as dangerously as possible, to consider every car-to-car interaction a zero-sum game, and to disregard, and almost loathe, others. For many, other drivers are the enemy rather than being your neighbor, work colleague or friend. Indeed, it is interesting to note how road-rage exchanges become distinctly awkward, embarrassing and, without fail, de-escalated when the drivers involved suddenly recognize each other as acquaintances. Yet the same person I just smiled at in the school foyer, or sat next to in church, or who cheerfully waved me and my shopping cart through in the fresh produce section in the grocery store, is often intent on killing me and my children as I drive home.

In a relatively tamed and civilized society, driving is arguably a remaining bastion of the Hobbesian dystopia in a war of all against all in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ quote is particularly relevant regarding short lives because in 2018, in the United States alone, there were over forty thousand driving-related fatalities. Obviously not all these deaths were caused by other drivers but the vast majority were caused by human failure.

Although human fallibility is extremely problematic (though also easily solved by automation), perhaps more concerning is how the car is one of the few opportunities left for people to wreak havoc and endanger others. The car has become an extension of the ego, a reflection of self-esteem, a projection of personal identity, a fortress against the outside world, and a readily accessible weapon to bolster individual weakness. There are five main reasons for this.

Firstly, as noted above, driving is anonymous. This is true both in terms of how the individual driver perceives himself and the other cars on the road. Other cars simply become ‘them’ whilst fellow drivers are nothing more than ominous silhouettes or disembodied hands on a steering wheel glimpsed in a mirror. Anonymity affords detachment and callousness; human behaviors that show up time and again in scientific studies involving anonymity. The complete isolation from others and the lack of human connection encourage and exacerbate our most selfish and psychopathic traits.

Secondly, there is a false sense of security that the metal carapace provides, seemingly protecting the individual from physical damage as well as the ire of other drivers. This extends to the freedom from consequences. The isolation and anonymity combined with the understanding that overstretched law enforcement is highly unlikely to be nearby ensures that many drivers feel confident that any negligent, reckless or aggressive driving can be enacted with impunity. Many believe that no other vehicle, driver or even the law can touch you when you’re in the car.

Thirdly, the sheer capability of modern cars, with their remarkable acceleration, handling and top-end speed, is seductive and empowering. The weak become strong, the feeble become mighty. Suddenly we’re all race drivers, superheroes and gods.

Fourthly, the roads offer one of the few social arenas where all walks of life come together and interact. The car is the great leveler whereby all social distinctions, including those based on age, wealth, race, gender, faith, education, and occupation, count for nothing. The billionaire drives next to the penniless student; the cancer patient alongside the gangster; the business executive, the homemaker, the teacher, the addict, the illegal immigrant, and the elderly widow, all jostle on the freeway together. This commingling of people is, unfortunately, not positive but a messy, toxic and dangerous concoction. This is largely because of the fifth and final reason: contemporary culture.

Modern culture, with its emphasis on materialism, competition and egotism, means that there is a huge amount of pressure on individuals. This can lead to a vast array of social and psychological problems, from the mundane, such as unhappiness, envy, and feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, to the more serious, including self-loathing and rage. Inevitably, driving allows all these human failings and neuroses to be demonstrated as well as projected onto others. It is perhaps no wonder that the roads are carnage.

The idea, therefore, that with autonomous cars we can take the deranged and dangerous away from driving and place them in a passenger seat where they can do no harm is a giant leap for road safety as well as social progress. The roads can stop being a battleground and become simply a transport system once more. For those of us who just want to get from A to B and go about our business with respect and decency the final days of the free-for-all on the roads is a delight to be savored. The vehicular emasculation of the lunatics, frustrated, furious and inept, is long overdue and another wonderful gift from technology. To know that in a few years’ time my daily life will be free from those trying to kill me is something I anticipate with relish.

As a post-script. I feel it is important to warn of a transition period when autonomous cars and human-driven cars co-exist and share the road (before self-driving cars predominate). This will undoubtedly be a time of confrontation because the remaining human drivers, who will be passionately for their non-autonomous vehicles and vehemently against autonomous cars, will try their hardest to usurp and disrupt the computer-controlled vehicles. The human driver will employ sudden braking, dangerous overtaking, swerving between lanes, and a host of other methods to disorient the autonomous car and attempt to impose their perceived superiority over the self-driving vehicle. It will be a period in which the remaining human drivers will view the increasingly disciplined and safe roads as a last stand in their battle for highway anarchy and freedom to cause mayhem. It will therefore be imperative that autonomous cars are equipped with dashboard and rear-view cameras to capture evidence of the human driver in their last hurrah of maniac against machine.

Lived on the streets of New York. Visited over 60 countries. Degrees from LSE, Duke and Cambridge. RAF officer. Teacher. Novelist. Dual citizen of the US and UK