It is remarkable how little notice the advent in America of the self-driving car has drawn. Who would have imagined that mobile, road-obsessed, and by-auto-possessed Americans whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents made their prized automobiles the center of their recreational lives and prided themselves on their prowess behind the wheel and their supercharged engines would come to prefer being chauffered by their cars while they made phone calls, played games, and read messages on a dinky piece of gadgetry from the back seat?
The transition began a half-generation ago, as young urbanites and even suburbanites came to see small use for an expensive encumbrance in a world overcrowded with people and machines and where their friends were becoming virtual ones whom one need not venture from the house to meet. And what, after all, is there to see from a car but vast industrial lots, fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and chain hotels? As for driving itself, vast modern conurbations, even their high-speed arteries clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, offer no opportunity to let out a highly engineered motor and put your driving skills to the test. Rural people, of course, continue to drive, but their vehicles are mostly utility ones (real utility machines, unlike the suburbanite’s Cadillac SUV), banged up and coated with mud or dust, with dogs or a large farm animal in the bed and a .30-30 across the rear window: tools, in a word. No glamour here, nor fun, but a feeling of self-sufficiency. Countrymen like to be in control of everything they do, and no self-driving vehicle is likely to be of use—or even minimally safe—on uncharted back roads in treacherous weather in country inhabited by large wild animals and full of sudden natural surprises, like a moose stepping out suddenly from thick forest into the two-track ahead, with a steep ravine falling off 1,000 feet on the far side of the road. What sensible person wants to trust his fate in such circumstances to the pallid engineers of Silicon Valley?
Perhaps the self-driving car is no more than a passing fad, alluring not for itself but for the innovative pleasure of overcoming technical difficulties to build something useless and finally unwanted. Still, the interest generated by the ultimate auto-mobile suggests that it is, indeed, later than we think.