With the horrifying mass shooting of 103 innocent people in Orlando still very fresh in our minds, gun violence and the rights of gun ownership are virtually all anyone with an opinion can talk about right now. While obviously salient at this juncture (especially given the legislative actions/inaction and epic Congressional sit-in that just took place), I predict that in the coming decades, it’s very possible we will be having a parallel conversation about driving cars.
Let’s look at this way: We are currently at roughly the same place with cars that we were 80 years ago with guns. They are both dangerous, lethal, and a leading cause of death. Yet, they are also a part of everyday life for commuters in the same way farmers, ranchers and sportsmen relied on them heavily (and to some extent still do) for their livelihood. Many have managed to do without either of them, but over time they have both become a part of the American pastime, whether that’s cruising through a windy road on a Sunday afternoon or making a trip to the firing range to hone skills and perhaps let off some steam.
But technology changes the utility of these contrivances. Where guns have become efficient to a point that their killing capacity can no longer be justified for civilian distribution, the development of safer and more efficient driverless cars will likely yield the same challenge for justifying human operation.
Right now we’re still basically in the “pre-driverless car” era. They exist in a nascent state, but problems abound. The New York Times reports engineers are still vexed with teaching driverless cars nuances of the road like potholes and speedbumps. So the vast majority of us are still better drivers than a computer system in a car. Chances are this will change, and the ability for cars to calculate conditions, speed, stopping times, and a host of other quantifiable relevant details combined with mechanical precision will mean a road full of driverless cars will be far safer than the human error that leads to tens of thousands of traffic fatalities each year. Less car accidents sounds great, right?
Given America’s love affair with driving automobiles, it’s going to be a rocky transition to that automated traffic flow if we even ever get there. You see, in the same way Americans believe it’s their right to own and operate killing machines like the AR-15 responsible for most of the deadliest mass shootings of the last five years, the liberty of driving a car is equally ingrained in the American psyche. Even though car accidents from human error amount to over 30,000 unnecessary deaths every year, there are still large segments of the population who enjoy driving far too much to give up the pastime without major pushback. Not unlike those who enjoy a pastime of shooting guns.
What this will mean is hard to say. It’s unclear at this time to what extent technology will advance and perhaps meet in the middle between safety and liberty. Can guns have an electronic killswitch that prevents them from being used for malicious purposes? Can cars assume control of driving only when it’s a real and present threat to the safety of others on the road? Will we need a driver’s lobby for those of us who still like the idea of pleasure driving just like the NRA for those who want to keep shooting their guns?
Perhaps we can reserve manually functioning cars and firearms for controlled environments and ban them in civilian life. Want to drive a car fast and recklessly? Go to a track and use theirs. Want to fire out a couple rounds of an automatic rifle? Go to the range and use theirs. Oh, you want the right to own and operate a deadly machine whenever you want? I guess that’s where the lawyers come in.