Three entries from “17 Ways Driverless Cars Could Change America,” by Dan McLaughlin of the Federalist, which meditates on the consequences (and unintended consequences) of autonomous vehicles.
4. Changing Who Can Drive: Driving, today, is a hallmark of responsible adulthood. Getting a driver’s license at 16 or 17, and learning to safely operate a motor vehicle, is a major rite of passage. High schools spend teaching time on Driver’s Ed. Driver’s licenses are the most widely-used form of photo identification, and whether the government should issue them to people who are in the country illegally is a continuing source of political controversy. People with serious physical or mental handicaps cannot drive. People who have had too much to drink, or are high on drugs or heavily medicated, cannot or should not drive. And at the other end, for the elderly, losing the ability to drive when their eyesight and reflexes fail can be a major blow to their independence.
None of these things need be true of a driverless car. A child old enough to ride a bicycle or take the subway unescorted could be old enough to take a driverless car trip, especially assuming (as discussed below) improvements in anti-theft technologies and the impossibility of even moving the car without being tracked. The elderly and the handicapped could gain greatly from the increased mobility and independence of being able to use a driverless car to go places and shop for groceries. On the other hand, the demise of the driver’s license creates challenges for the many ways in which it is used as a de facto identification card, and could create pressure for a new federal identification card.
7. Destroying Car Culture: Here we move from the specific to the general, because cars, in America, are not just an appliance. They represent a deep expression of how American culture expressed and asserted itself in the 20th Century. Cars meant independence, and the bond between an American—particularly an American man—and his car was deep and profound, the subject of numerous songs and movies. People drive for fun, to see places, to get away, they tinker with their cars, love their cars, and argue about their merits. That bond will inevitably be lost in a world where the car is no longer controlled and steered by the individual, but is simply a delivery service for a requested address.
Sentiment aside, this is the cost of progress. In the 19th Century, we had a horse culture. Horses were the companion of the settler, the wagon train, the cavalryman, the cowboy. Even if you lived in a big city, where people traveled by carriage and goods were delivered by horse-drawn wagons, most every American knew some of the basics of horsemanship: how to mount a horse, win a horse’s trust, command and steer a horse, and re-shoe a horse at need. Today, horsemanship is the province of the very rich, the very rural, and those who make a living dealing with horses, and is alien to most Americans. In time, the same will be true of car culture—the wealthy will race on private tracks, the country boys and girls will drive off road, but the rest of us will be escorted around by machines without thought for how to drive them. We may not even be able to foresee all the ways that changes how we view our own lives and the culture we live in.
15. Fewer Used Cars, More Inequality: The more cars involve electronics rather than simple machinery, the costlier they are to design and repair, and the shorter their likely shelf life. That’s bad news for poorer people who want to own one. Traditionally, the low end of the used-car market was a haven for men, especially young men, who had little money but had the know-how to keep a fading piece of machinery running for a few more years. Doing that with the kind of sophisticated computer systems and pricey components needed to run driverless navigation systems is something a lot fewer young men, especially the less educated, are prepared to do.