The story of the automobile is very much the story of modern America. The assembly line perfected by Henry Ford for his Model T changed modern industrial manufacturing. The automobile expanded the freedom of movement and thus freedom itself. It led to the interstate highway system, changed the rhythms of life and hugely influenced popular culture.
More than any other invention, it put Americans figuratively -- and literally -- into the driving seat, consigning the old ways to a glimpse in the rearview mirror. But what if technology were to yank that independent driver from behind the wheel, making him or her just another passenger?
This is not fanciful. As the Post-Gazette's Michael A. Fuoco reported last Sunday, the future is today in the Pittsburgh area. He rode in a vehicle that looked like any other Cadillac SRX, but was not. This car had four passengers but no driver, at least a human driver. A computer assisted by lasers and radar did the driving.
This curious Cadillac was an experimental self-driving vehicle developed at the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab at CMU in Oakland. The goal is to develop an autonomous driving vehicle that can more safely navigate highways than humans can.
Actually, that isn't such a high bar. Some 30,000 people are killed in crashes on the nation's roads every year and 2.3 million are injured enough to need emergency room visits. Computer-driven cars can surely do better than the sometimes incompetent, aggressive, drunken or distracted people who now turn up behind the wheel.
As our reporter discovered on Route 19 in Cranberry, the driverless car did well in stopping at stop signs and red lights, keeping to the speed limit, changing lanes and braking for reckless human drivers. As it is, computers in modern cars can correct the mistakes of drivers right now. As early as the year 2020, the Pittsburgh project and others like it may make a full driverless model a reality.
Then new questions of cultural change will arise in society once again. How will the legal system respond? Will it be OK to text in the driver's seat of a car when the person there is not the driver? Will drinking and non-driving be allowed when the car is driving itself? Could car and computer makers be sued when their inventions, which could possibly save thousands of lives, break down and cause the loss of a single life?
What will teens who yearn to drive fast and loudly do when a computer is in charge as a vehicular nanny? Will people of all ages feel that the freedom of the open road has become the slavery of the road driven by computer?
The remarkable work of Pittsburgh researchers has a huge potential to do good, but the technology may be the least of their problems. American identity itself is standing in the road.