Why self-driving cars threaten our romance with the road

Why driverless cars threaten our romance with the road

Credit: Kagan McLeod

Driverless cars may deliver many benefits, including fewer traffic accidents. But will they be any fun?

The January 1958 issue of the Radio Corp. of America’s Electronic Age magazine was hit-and-miss in its predictions. The widespread availability of colour television worked out as forecast. But “Radio via Meteor Trails?” This was a story claiming scientists were bouncing radio waves off the ionized particles left behind by meteors entering the atmosphere, for some odd reason. Either this idea never bore fruit, or it’s still so top secret that sinister men in dark suits are going to be knocking on my door and dragging me away within the next few minutes.

Yet another article in the magazine gushed that RCA was building a microwave radio network for the government of Cuba. Unfortunately, this fearless forecast of tomorrow failed to predict the overthrow of the Cuban government by Fidel Castro’s guerrillas exactly one year later, on January 1, 1959. There’s probably a dramatic story yet to be told of RCA engineers fleeing in little boats overloaded with microwave transmitters.

But one sci-fi projection in that 1958 magazine may actually be taking shape—the driverless car. Electronic Age revealed that RCA was testing driverless cars on closed tracks even then, using circuitry embedded in the pavement and roadside sensors. Elsewhere a 1957 magazine ad from “America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies” showed a family racing down the highway in their driverless car (with fins, of course) while enjoying a game of dominoes. It was a utopian vision of the future in which families still played dominoes together.

Now those utopian visions have returned. A 2016 Business Insider story listed the many ways that driverless cars will change our cities and our lives for the better: saving lives by reducing accidents, shrinking carbon emissions, freeing up urban space by eliminating many parking lots, ending traffic jams, increasing free time and productivity, improving mobility for seniors and the disabled. It all sounds grand. I wonder, though—will it ever happen? Just as it was once claimed that Big Oil tried to kill the electric car, and that Big Pharma is suppressing a cure for cancer, I fear dark forces will block the driverless car. Chief among those powerful groups: Big Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Rock music has long depended on the romance of cars. In a driverless world, what will happen to Bruce Springsteen? Will anyone want to pump their fists to the power chords of “Born to Run Itself”? “At night we ride through mansions of glory in our perfectly safe and reliable driverless vehicles/ Sprung from cages out on Highway 9/ Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and regulated by automated electronic systems to provide safe and predictable transportation in full accordance with all local speed limits, baby.” Stadiums and concert halls will empty. Big Rock will never stand for it.

Big Hollywood will have its say, as well. Studios will only accept a car with a mind of its own if that mind is pure evil. Movies like Christine, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Terminator films offered an acceptable vision of an automated future. Self-driven machines are all right as long as they’re allowed to fulfill their destinies by trying to destroy humanity. Alternatively, Hollywood might be OK with an automated car that automatically climbs the sidewalk and hits a fruit stand or automatically just misses a woman pushing a baby carriage. Remake The French Connection with Popeye Doyle sitting in the back seat? Give us James Bond in a driverless Aston Martin, maintaining a steady and safe distance ahead of SPECTRE agents whose cars steadfastly refuse to fly over cliffs and explode? Never. The big movie studios will kidnap these driverless-car engineers and introduce them to the Hollywood lifestyle until they’re unfit to do anything but drink, snort cocaine and start Twitter feuds with each other.

Then there’s advertising. Are we really going to see ads saying: “The BMW 3-series: Because you really enjoy playing dominoes with your family”? It’s well established that piloting a sporty vehicle along a mountain road is the mark of a man. Or if not expert driving, then at least hauling big loads with more torque than any other truck in its class. What if the truck does this entirely without your help? Do you still get the testosterone boost?

Powerful forces will inevitably block the driverless car. Instead, the future may well depend on radio signals bounced off ionized meteor trails. That will fix everything, for sure, somehow.