The Tesla S is the closest thing to a totally driverless car available now. I had to leave my state to test-drive it. New York's archaic laws forbid taking both hands off the wheel.
Once outside New York, the Tesla representative in the passenger seat had me turn on the autopilot.
Suddenly, I was doing nothing. The car drove itself.
Actually, I didn't do nothing . I hyperventilated. It's not natural to sit passively while "driving" at 65 mph.
Then came my accident! In a narrow tunnel, the car drifted left, and a tire banged against the side of the tunnel. If I hadn't quickly grabbed the steering wheel, we would have crashed.
Was the computer-guided car unable to handle a narrow tunnel? No, it turned out the mistake, as usual, was human error — my error. I had nervously touched the steering wheel when we entered the tunnel, and that disengaged the autopilot. The Tesla guy didn't warn me. Or maybe he did, but I forgot.
Once I learned how the car works, I found the driverless car pretty wonderful, although weird. It's counterintuitive to trust a computer to handle a car's sharp turns or stop-and-go traffic.
But it does work. That's the big point — driverless cars are safer than we drivers are. Ninety-four percent of people killed in car crashes are killed because of human error.
The car's sensors see when I'm approaching another car. They see better than we do. They are our future, says economist James Miller.
I asked him why drivers should trust the computer. After all, computers crash!
"People know that machines are better than people at a lot of tasks," was his smart answer. "Our brains are basically machines — but not machines optimized for going 65 miles an hour." As for "crashing," he points out that computer buyers aren't willing to spend extra money for a backup system, but drivers definitely will.
Robot cars may soon save 30,000 lives a year, if bureaucrats let them. It will be a battle. The technology is way ahead of our laws.
Soon after my car was driving itself, I got bored. So I picked up a newspaper.
"Not a good idea, John!" scolded my Tesla copilot. He reminded me that state laws say a human driver must always be "in control."
It would also be against the law if I had gone to sleep. But someday, that will be an option. Commuting will be much less stressful.
Because robot cars are safer, insurance rates will drop. Some people will still want to drive themselves, and those people will pay a little more. That's fine, but then our authoritarian government will probably switch gears and ban "dangerous human driving."
Maybe that will be the libertarian controversy in 2021.
Freedom doesn't mean doing anything you want. It means, in part, deciding when to give up control and when to retain it. It also means doing nothing that directly harms others. Giving up some control to machines has been a benefit for centuries.
Robot cars will take away jobs from some taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery men, etc. Unions, The New York Times and maybe Donald Trump will demand laws to "protect" those jobs. But that's a mistake.
"Experts" always say automation will create unemployment. In 1930, a New York Times headline said: "Economists predict number of men employed will decline." But the opposite has happened. Forty-six million Americans had jobs when that headline ran; now 150 million do.
Technology did destroy some jobs. Ninety percent of Americans once worked on farms. Now just 2 percent do. Somehow, today those 2 percent grow more food for less money. A hundred million Americans found other jobs.
This is a great thing.
Farm work was grueling, dangerous and time-consuming. Better agricultural technology frees people up to do safer, more interesting jobs. It also allows people more leisure. Think how many things we're free to do now that we grow food with the help of tractors.
Maybe someday we will look at driving cars the way we now look at farming with a mule.