Is the Self-Driving Car Un-American?

I don’t know which is more difficult for me to believe: That humans will be on Mars within my lifetime… or that cars will drive themselves. Apparently, both of those things are going to happen and I’m fine with that. “Our republic of drivers is poised to become a nation of passengers,” writes Robert Moor in New York Magazine. Mr. Moor provides a most thoughtful look at where we’ve been and where we’re headed. A few excerpts:

Will middle-aged men still splurge on outlandishly fast (or, at least, fast-looking) self-driving vehicles? Will young men still buy cheap ones and then blow their paychecks tricking them out? If we are no longer forced to steer our way through a traffic jam, will it become less existentially frustrating, or more? What will become of the cinematic car chase? What about the hackneyed country song where driving is a metaphor for life? Will race-car drivers one day seem as remotely seraphic to us as stunt pilots? Will we all one day assume the entitled air of the habitually chauffeured?

Many readers currently blanch at the news that the roads will one day be filled with cars hurtling brainlessly along at high speed. But those people fail to realize one thing: They already are.

Driving correlates with obesity rates, which, separate studies have shown, correlate with poverty rates. Heavy street traffic lowers real-estate values, and the people who live on those streets tend to spend less time outside and have worse relationships with neighbors. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death worldwide for people ages 15 to 29. Emissions have a disproportionate effect on the health of communities of color, and nearly 90 percent of air-pollution deaths occur in poorer countries. A quarter of America’s greenhouse gases are released by our transportation, imposing a future climate cost that will be paid mostly by the nation’s, and the world’s, least fortunate. Meanwhile, 80 percent of car capacity goes unused, which means that most cars on the road, which can seat at least five people, carry only one.

For those of us who see driving as a kind of imprisonment — which, spatially speaking, it quite literally is — an extra hour to work or play (or eat, or read, or meditate, or fix our hair and do our makeup) will be cherished. But for those who see driving as a physical expression of freedom — which, spatially speaking, it also quite literally is — the end of driving will feel like confinement.