I firmly believe that, in the relatively near future, we'll all be driving autonomous cars. Maybe not Google Cars per se, but certainly autonomous cars. I also firmly believe that we'll be driving them because, essentially, the government will be forcing us to.
I also firmly believe that we'll all look back on this and blame GM for it.
Well, not entirely place all the fault upon GM. But the Great GM Recall is a good illustration why we'll all be forced into driving autonomous cars, and perhaps (actually, most likely) cheerfully so.
Image shamelessly stolen from Ralph Orlove. I'd complete the effect by flipping it 180 degrees vertically, but meh, I'm that lazy.
In 2004, a 21-year-old woman was tried and convicted of the vehicular manslaughter of her own fiancee based on well, I don't see how else this car could've gotten stuck in this tree, so it has to be her fault (or in other words a lack of clear evidence pointing otherwise, a valid legal concept known as Ipso [Post] Facto). Fast forward to today and now she's learning that she may have been unfairly blamed for the murder of her fiancee and lost about a decade and a half's worth of her freedom because of a faulty ignition switch in her Saturn Ion. Why am I bringing this up? Because it goes to show that when we're driving our cars, we're liable for every other life we see on the road and in our cars, in ways we don't even realize and in means that aren't even in our own control.
But that's unfair! some of you may (and should) cry. What if I pop a tire and it's a choice between hitting an oncoming car and hitting a cyclist? Or what if my car was designed by negligent monkeys (for simplicity's sake, we'll refer to said negligent monkeys as General Monkeys) and it starts to act like a tree magnet?
The thing is, you're right, that is unfair, and there is too much liability placed on the driver to be completely calculatingly infallible and, in essence, inhuman. But, hey, wait a minute! What if we can transfer all of that liability to something that is calculatingly infallible and inhuman?
So a whole bunch of people will gladly trade in their General Monkeys-designed deathmobiles for autonomous cars not so that they can play Candy Crush or put on lipstick while they drive, but just so they can transfer driving liability to this nice, big corporation that can afford to hire the necessary resources to weasel out of it. Regardless the reason, this will start the gears inevitably turning. You know those ridiculous scenarios I listed off a few paragraphs earlier? Don't they sound kind of familiar? They should.
Somebody in Congress is going to be reading that, and they'll start thinking, well, so this girl is going to be driving along and she's going to swerve into oncoming traffic because she's too busy playing Candy Crush and being a girl because women, amirite? and she's going to force this Google Koala Car to hit a tree and kill its driver because it's the lesser of all the evils on the table. But wait! Maybe if that girl was in a Google Koala Car too, she wouldn't have swerved into oncoming traffic while playing Candy Crush and being a woman driver! I've got it! If we just legislate that all cars must be Google Koala Cars then we don't even have to worry about programming Koalas to kill their own drivers because we won't have to worry about crashes anymore, period! Wow, I am so awesome, time to vote in a raise for myself!
And that is how the driver-engaged car will die. Drivers will no longer want the liability of killing someone, especially potentially not at their actual fault, and pretty much everyone else will just demand that all other drivers follow suit to further simplify the liability issue. If it's not legislated, insurance companies, law firms, safety groups, environmental groups (since autonomous cars can be made lighter through eschewing safety requirements and drive more efficiently, they'll be inherently more green) and the manufacturers themselves will find a way to either practically force all drivers into autonomous cars through incentive/disincentive programs or use their lobbying might to force the legislative issue.
Now, not all driver-engaged cars will be banned and forced to be sacrificed in a "Koalas for Clunkers" program. At least at first, the sheer number of cars on the road will require most of them to be grandfathered in but as those cars are scrapped through attrition and replaced, the expectations will be greater for near-universal autonomous car ownership (much like similar programs for near-universal "green" car ownership). That'll leave the holdouts with their (now vintage regardless of the generation) Camaros and Challengers and Off-Roaders, but now every time they go down the road all the passengers in their autonomous cars will shoot them dirty looks because they're that asshole who could potentially kill me.
In essence, people who actually drive their cars will start to experience a lot in common with these guys:
Image credit MSNBC
It's very possible the similarities won't end there, either. After all, a car becomes a 3,000-4,000 lb. deadly missile when in the wrong hands - and in the age of autonomous cars, the wrong hands might be seen as anyone's hands, period. Imagine a separate, "special" registry for driver-engaged cars complete with firearms-like increased restrictions on their use or operation. Yeah, it could happen. In fact it'll probably happen.
I don't think all of it will devolve to the level of fear-mongering, however. Regardless of what happens, even a few autonomous cars on the road should at least theoretically decrease the number of occurring accidents, so autonomous cars really is win-win good news for everyone. And the holdouts shouldn't feel like total outcasts - in fact, it should be a new renaissance for driver engagement just like with that car culture thing people keep talking about. Autonomous cars means practically all the commuters will be using autonomous cars and only autonomous cars, which means more open road for letting the throttle wide open (especially on deserted backcountry roads) and more optimization for driver-engaged designs towards hooning, at least on the aftermarket.
This is real uncharted territory for driver-engaged cars so it's very hard to say, especially for an armchair automotive forecaster like myself. But I think it's an easy call to make regarding autonomous cars becoming the norm, and the near-elimination of automotive-related death and injury (especially when considering auto-related accidents being among the top causes of death for young people) is simply too good to legislate into reality (and really, the morally responsible course of action).