The history of the automobile as a model for the self-driving future
A small crowd of curious onlookers peered across the street as a peculiar horseless carriage sputtered and clanged loudly down the road emitting noxious clouds of black and grey smoke. It was 1886 and Karl Benz had just taken his first automobile – or “motorwagen” as it was called at the time – out for a test drive. One hundred thirty years later, self-driving car tests have the same effect on us. Their technological prowess amazes us, but also raises many doubts. And the first concern is always safety.
In 1912, an Italian magazine reported on this very issue: the perceived safety of old vs. new transport means. “Horses, trams and trains can collide, smash, kill half the world, and nobody cares, but if an automobile leaves a scratch on an urchin who dances in front of it …” Indeed, it is the very same debate that raged when a self-driving car test driver passed away in a road accident earlier this year. It was the first fatality due to a self-driving vehicle in over 130 million miles driven, while America currently averages one road death every 94 miles! And yet, how much attention did it attract?
Notwithstanding the fact that the general progress towards greater safety has been driven by a steady increase in technology over the past fifty years, we are still a very wary people. New technology always raises myriad doubts and concerns. And while our safety expectations are far higher than they were at the end of the nineteenth century, and self-driving cars are already far safer than anything that has ever been tested before, we still will require an “acclimatisation period” to fully embrace this new technology.
Similarly, arguments against eliminating traffic lights and roundabouts in favour of expensive smart management systems retrace the very same debate of yesteryear on the need to pave roads as the new automobiles, which moved much faster than horses and carriages, were raising much more dust. It is a long and often tiring journey to diffuse new technology beyond the early adopters, but once it is understood at large, people suddenly turn around, look back, and wonder how they ever lived without it.
The adoption of self-driving cars will be slow, inevitably. Indeed, first-generation products will look pretty much like any car produced over the last fifty years, but slowly, as this new mode of transport grows more popular, it will be perfected. Legacy systems will disappear as people understand its advantages, making more room for new services or perhaps inspiring a return to smaller cars, even the futuristic pods once imagined in the 1960s!
No matter where the evolution of smart vehicles leads us, it will not be long, before we turn around and wonder how we ever managed to negotiate all those intersections and roundabouts, governed by traffic lights, with stick shifts and steering wheels.
For further information:
- The Millennial Model
- Automotive Peaks and Trends
- The Self-Driving Car that Never Was