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California Gov. Edmund G Brown Jr., front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Sept. 25, 2012. The legislation will open the way for driverless cars in the state. (Eric Risberg/AP)

California Gov. Edmund G Brown Jr., front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Sept. 25, 2012. The legislation will open the way for driverless cars in the state.

(Eric Risberg/AP)

Self-driving cars will set off an economic and cultural earthquake Add to ...

From the romance of the road trip to the feeling of getting your driver’s license, the car has always conjured images of freedom and control. Those time-worn ideals, however, may soon be a relic of the past.

The car that drives itself is no longer some dream of fiction like the Batmobile or Knight Rider’s KITT. Instead, the technology like that from Google is not only almost here, self-driving cars are now legal in three American states – including all-important California – and recently, the U.K., too.

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As easy as it is to conceive of a future much like the present, only with highways full of autonomous cars, the reality is quite different. If cars can drive themselves, the place of the automobile in our culture will start to change radically – and how it does so will have enormous ramifications for cities, for commuters and for our lives.

It’s tempting to think of the arrival of driverless cars like other switches from manual to automatic technologies: the benefits will all be about of convenience. You could have the privacy and effectiveness of a single car for your ride to work, but could read the newspaper and eat your breakfast on the way. It’s the best of your Honda and a subway rolled into one.

But if cars can move themselves around, why, for example, should they lie in a parking lot all day or night? Instead, as others have suggested, it might make far more sense to have a car simply drop you off at work, and either keep itself elsewhere or transport someone else, thereby saving the increasingly valuable real estate in cities for other things. The inefficiency of a vehicle that goes unused for most of the day may start to seem quite wasteful.

In fact, that sort of thinking leads quite logically into challenging the very idea of owning a car. Rather than storing a thirty- or forty-thousand dollar machine in your garage, it may make more sense to pull out your smartphone and hail one if and when needed. Cars could be shared, either through extending the services we have now like Zipcar or Car2Go, or through new forms of shared ownership we haven’t quite conceived of yet.

Our current idea of the car is based on the individual or family: it is personal travel, single ownership and individualism in general that fuel our car-obsessed culture. But with driverless cars, a large part of transportation and commuting could instead be thought of as an interlinked system where cars are simply moving through our streets and we hop in if and when needed. As a result, the currently neat line dividing public and private transit might start to get a bit more fuzzy. Similarly, the congestion woes that plague so many cities might be eased by cars that can travel far closer together with little risk of a collision. Rather than only changing how individuals drive, driverless cars may fundamentally change mass transportation.

That isn’t to say, however, that self-driving cars therefore necessarily represent a shiny utopian future. They raise many complex issues, especially when human- and computer-driven cars inevitably share a road. As the New Yorker ‘s Gary Marcus reflected, what happens when a computer has to make a split second decision to either save the car’s occupants or a school bus just ahead? What we once left to human agency, we may soon find ourselves leaving to algorithms. Moreover, there’s the tricky issue of legal or financial culpability. Who is responsible for those almost “moral” decisions driving software might have to make, or even just the limitations of technology that may result in collisions?

Depending on how self-driving cars are marketed and regulated, their ease and convenience could also actually encourage urban sprawl by making short car trips even easier than they are now. The current economic and environmental pressure to create dense, walkable neighbourhoods may face one more foe in the driverless car.

Far from being a mere new trinket, autonomous cars, like their human-controlled predecessors, will have far-ranging effects, influencing culture, urban design, the environment and more. The point, however, is to remind ourselves that new technologies are not simply tools that help us accomplish existing goals, like getting to the grocery store or commuting to work. They are also new ways of relating to the world, changing how we think of space, urban design or transport in general.

This is no longer Google’s pet project, many other companies, like Mercedes Benz, are working on solutions and the technology is evolving fast. There are pressing reasons why: each year over a million people die globally in automobile accidents. Nearly half of all severe injuries in Canada are caused by cars. Meanwhile, the widespread use of fossil fuels continues to threaten the stability of countries and economies worldwide. The car as we currently conceive of it is a twentieth-century ideal, and our car culture may be incompatible with our ideals of environmentalism or harm reduction.

Though cars that appear to move by magic may seem fantastical, they’re coming soon and they demand real reflection – and the time to decide the future of the automobile is already growing short.

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