The footnotes to car ads have grown more interesting of late. They started decades ago with the innocuous boilerplate, “Professional driver, closed course.” But then someone let the copywriters have their snarky fun. The Ford Fusion Hybrid’s features an enduring classic that appears as the sedan leaps off a cliff: “Fictionalization. Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt. Cars cannot fly.”1
Silly as these warnings sound, the latest fine print inadvertently reveals our automotive future. Since 2010, when it debuted an automatic braking technology that keeps you from mowing down pedestrians, Volvo has been running vague disclaimers like, “City Safety is not a substitute for safe driving.” Mercedes Benz shows its cars racing across the frozen north thanks to its intelligent traction system with the countervailing footnote, “Drive cautiously based on weather conditions.” Jeep, of all brands, has to remind buyers, “Electronic driver assistance features are not substitutes for active driver involvement.” Chevrolet warns you, “Never rely on its Crash Imminent Braking feature to brake the vehicle.” Yes, the feature stops the Impala from going Titanic and hitting an iceberg while the driver’s eyes wander. But that’s just in the ad.2
The prize for covering the bottom of the screen with advice goes to Toyota’s “May You” commercial, which helpfully explains that “Vehicle Stability Control is not a substitute for safe driving,” “Lane Keeping Assist is not a substitute for attentive driving,” “Pre-Collision system is not a substitute for attentive driving.” To that effect, “Do not rely exclusively on the Blind Spot Monitor to determine if lane changing is safe.”3
These warnings are all baldfaced lies. City Safety is a substitute for safe driving. You can drive as madly as you like thanks to the electronic stability of your Mercedes. Your Jeep is too polite to tailgate. Your Toyota knows better than you do when it can safely change lanes. Lane Keeping Assist and Pre-Collision braking are not just substitutes for attentive driving—inattentive driving is their raison-d’être. Add to these safety features gimmicks such as self-parking and remote starting by mobile phone (“Siri, start the car”) and you have machines that look an awful lot like robot cars.
The American “love affair” with the automobile is often mistaken for a love affair with driving. We think driver distraction arose with the smartphone, but truth be told most Americans never liked driving much. When Oldsmobile debuted Motoring’s Magic Carpet on the eve of World War II, it lamented the struggles of the little lady with a standard transmission: “After nineteen distinct manual operations, she’s finally ready to drive.” Relief came from the Hydra-Matic drive, the original automatic transmission. Times have changed but the dream has not. Today, Mercedes promises a “flying carpet” ride from its laser-guided Magic Body Control active suspension system. Let them wrestle with their overtaxed motors among the dark satanic mills of Europe. Americans invented power steering. Come to think of it, flying carpets don’t even need steering wheels, do they?4
Those who read robot news may think I’m on about the Google Car, the result of Pentagon funding, Stanford computer genius Sebastian Thrun, and of course money from all those little internet adverts. The origin of Google’s small self-driving fleet—each with sixty-four spinning laser beams mounted to its roof and hacker wires running down to the wheels—dates to the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, where Stanley, Stanford’s VW SUV (now on display at the Smithsonian), beat twenty-three other teams in a race through the desert. In 2007, Stanford placed second in DARPA’s urban version of the race, in which cars had to cope with stop signs and other annoyances. They were bested by Carnegie Mellon, but ran ahead of MIT, Virginia Tech, and the rest. Who says college is a waste?
No doubt the people who brought us the remote-controlled drone, the stealth bomber, and persistent, ubiquitous surveillance have great plans for these self-driving systems. An automated fuel truck won’t be wearing a Pakistani suicide vest or be mourned by folks back home like a brave young military contractor. Self-driving vehicles built by Lockheed Martin have already had their first tour of duty in Afghanistan. They didn’t help win the war, of course, but they did help win Lockheed Martin a contract.
But it’s not just Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and the Pentagon who are bringing us robot cars. There are cars on the road today that could, with just a little tweaking, drive themselves in most situations. They could at the least ply the interstates. That they do not is a failure of marketing imagination and law, not technology.
Society is already groping toward the few changes needed to make robot cars a reality. Automakers will need a new marketing plan to replace their current sales messages. The appeals to economy and quality will still hold water, but what about those that promise the thrill and competition of driving? Snaking along wet mountain roads, ramming through walls, and outpacing other traffic—such kicks are lost on robots. Violence—both the threat and exhilaration of it—has been a persistent and of late seemingly more prevalent theme in advertising. The 2014 Cadillac XTS Vsport literally “blows the doors off” the competition in its latest ad. Perhaps the worst was a BMW film that featured Clive Owen as a professional driver beating the vanity out of Madonna with his BMW M5. At the other end of the spectrum, Mitsubishi’s 2014 Outlander commercial shows a woman badly injured on the road before the arrival of the SUV, with Frontal Collision Mitigation (“It is not a substitute for safe and careful driving”).5 Surely the ad agencies will come up with new pitches when robot cars end what has been more than a century of highway violence.
And of course many of us invest our egos in our vehicles—whether driving ovate maxivans, equine pickups, or phallic coupes. Whether cars can continue to do that cultural work—can continue to serve as the ultimate symbol of consumption and success—remains to be seen.
Government will have to rethink much of the regulatory regime that surrounds cars and driving. This is a bigger problem than you might imagine because so much of our system for regulating traffic is not really about making traffic smoother or safer. It’s about social control. A century ago, as cars suddenly made it possible for Americans to slip local bonds, government responded with rules and regulations to keep track of who was driving what. Whether intentionally or not, traffic regulations became a national dragnet serving all manner of police purposes, suppressing everything from sex trafficking to adolescent rebellion. More recently, traffic laws have nabbed terrorists and funded police operations through civil forfeiture rules. We’ll have to figure out how to weave a new dragnet in the age of robot cars. As luck would have it, the NSA is already on the case.
It is little exaggeration to say that the automobile served as the cornerstone of American economic growth for much of the 20th century. Production created middle-class jobs while consumption and infrastructure generated economic activity. A transition to robot cars could reignite this economic engine. No other society is as deeply committed to a future of individualized mass transportation, so we are the obvious nation to begin the transition to driverless cars. The savings in lives, aggravation, and energy would be enormous. The robot car could jump-start the economic engine even as it displaces taxi drivers and long-haul truckers. This is not to promise a techno-utopia—only to point out that a lot of money has been made selling American cars to the world and we might as well try for an encore.
Truth be told, many people gave up driving long ago, yet there they sit, behind the wheel. The robot cars are here. If only we’d let them drive.