Imagine for a moment that, one day in the future, a major pharmaceutical company released a new miracle drug that radically and instantaneously enhanced human performance. Everyone who took it immediately became significantly faster, stronger, and more efficient. As a result, millions of people began taking it daily. The gains enabled by this drug quickly transformed society—entire industries sprung up to take advantage of the productivity gains it afforded, consumption patterns changed, jobs were created, and a significant portion of the U.S. economy came to depend on its availability.
Now imagine that this drug was discovered to have severe side effects. Namely, it killed people. Lots of people. Some people died directly as a result of taking it, while others died at the hands of people who flew into murderous rages after reacting badly to it. Still others were killed more slowly by poisonous vapor that leaked out of the skin pores of everyone who took the drug. Overall, more than a million people died every year as a direct result of the drug's availability, and tens of millions more were severely injured.
You can imagine the pandemonium this would cause. Lawmakers would likely convene emergency sessions to ban the drug and would probably try to criminalize its distribution. Boycotts would rage. Protestors would likely take up residence outside the pharmaceutical company's headquarters. Executives might go to jail. We would all likely agree that, no matter how radically effective the miracle drug was, its human toll made it an unacceptable hazard.
This is, to a first approximation, the situation we currently face with cars. We tend to forget that despite their central place in global transportation and commerce, cars are toxic, inefficient killing machines. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.24 million people die every year in traffic accidents, and between 20 and 50 million more sustain non-fatal injuries. Pollution from cars has covered entire cities in smog, and made the earth immeasurably less habitable. In terms of lives lost, cars are one of the most destructive inventions in human history, rivaled only by gunpowder.
Luckily, there is a solution. Self-driving cars, currently being developed by Google, Mercedes, Tesla, and a handful of other companies, are on their way. Collectively, over the last few years of testing, self-driving cars have navigated millions of miles of roads, and they already appear to be safer and more efficient than human drivers. A self-driving car hasn't caused an accident. (They have gotten into accidents, but all of those accidents were caused by human error.)
Self-driving cars won't completely eliminate car pollution, but they will likely be better for the environment than human-powered cars. The cars' hive mind will help eliminate traffic jams as they can re-route to maximize available roads and be programmed to move at a slow, steady speed rather than the herky-jerky start-and-stops of unpredictable human drivers. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Maryland estimated that self-driving cars could reduce fuel use by 15 percent by using more efficient driving patterns than humans.
The most important thing about self-driving cars is that they are utterly inevitable. They are too superior, too obviously beneficial to humanity, and too technologically feasible not to eventually overtake human-piloted vehicles and become the default standard of transportation all over the world. As Buzzfeed's Mat Honan put it, "the efficient, unemotional, necessary logic of cars that operate without human error and instability is unquestionable." Decades from now, our descendants will react in horror when we tell them about car culture. "You mean, you used to drive those things … yourselves?"
Some researchers estimate that, by the middle of this century, self-driving cars could prevent a million traffic deaths a year—making them as important a public health achievement as vaccines. And yet, the road from here to there is long, winding, and filled with potholes.
Self-driving cars will be prohibitively expensive at first. Taxi drivers, long-haul truckers, and other people who will be made obsolete by automated vehicles will rise up to defend the status quo, and traditional auto manufacturers will lobby for protectionist laws to save themselves. Privacy advocates will worry about the tracking of human beings that will be a side effect of the cars' need for massive data collection. The first glitch in a self-driving car—a hack that renders a car dangerous, a kid who is killed by a car whose software was incorrectly patched—will provoke enormous, sustained populist backlash. The political and regulatory battle over self-driving cars is going to make Uber's war for survival look like a slap fight.
There is only one way to assure that self-driving cars become ubiquitous, so they can begin saving millions of lives as quickly as possible:
Driving must be banned.
If Congress passed a law banning driving tomorrow, automakers would be incentivized to put reliable self-driving cars onto the market as quickly as possible. Funding would pour into autonomous driving R&D efforts, the cost of production would nosedive, and affordable self-driving cars could become a reality far sooner than expected. Ideally, these policies would mean self-driving cars will be available to all, not just the upper class.
By outlawing driving and facilitating a switch to autonomous vehicles, we would make a significant and lasting impact on global public health. Thousands of lives would be saved in the U.S. alone, and those people's families would be spared unthinkable tragedy. (We would also make cities like Los Angeles and New York eminently more livable by dramatically reducing traffic, but that's another argument.)
Congress wouldn't need the driving ban to kick in immediately. Like the Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank Act, the No More Driving Act could be phased in over a period of several years, to allow car makers to perfect their technology and achieve mass production. Perhaps in 2017, companies that produce self-driving cars could receive a tax credit, and consumers could be paid to trade in their old, human-driven cars under a "cash for clunkers"-type scheme. Low-income families may require subsidies to make the switch. In 2018, drivers would begin to receive small fines for driving on public roads. In 2019, the punishment could become more severe—perhaps $500 citations for traveling in a human-directed vehicle. And in 2020, we could achieve full criminalization of driving, with penalties equivalent to those you'd get for bringing a bazooka to a schoolyard.
Cars have, unfortunately, become part of our modern self-image, and their ubiquity has created the illusion of an inalienable right. People love driving. Especially in America, where nationalism and masculinity and driving go hand-in-hand-in-hand, the cultural primacy of cars is going to make driving nearly impossible to outlaw. (Think it's hard to take away Americans' guns? Try taking away their wheels.)
It won't be easy for people to give up driving, and it'll be especially painful for people who bought now-outdated human-driven cars in the last few years. But passing laws that protect us from harm is a good idea, even if some liberty is lost as a result. States that passed mandatory seatbelt laws in the 1980s and 1990s saw their traffic death rates fall dramatically, with thousands of lives saved as a result. Mandatory emissions standards have prevented millions of tons of pollutants from being released into the atmosphere (even if some companies don't follow them). Neither of these things would have happened without paternalist intervention. When public safety is on the line, volunteering isn't good enough.
Look, I like driving. Hurtling 80 miles an hour down a dusty, deserted road at sunset is one of life's great pleasures. But I also know that I am a terrible driver. I fidget with the radio. I type into Google Maps. I get distracted by daydreams. I fall prey to blind spots. Compared to a self-driving car's ruthless computational efficiency, I am an atom bomb on wheels.
And you are, too. That's the point: self-driving cars are vastly superior to human drivers under any conceivable rubric. And to maximize our safety, only total conversion will do. Self-driving cars will only achieve their full public health potential when we get all the humans off the pedals, and fill our highways and roads with 100 percent self-driving vehicles.
Other countries are already leading the way to our glorious, driverless future. (China's Baidu is reportedly releasing a self-driving car later this year, and Japan will reportedly begin testing self-driving taxis next year.) It's time for America to act in the best interest of its citizens, and not let our atavistic attachment to car culture get in the way of one of the most significant global health achievements in human history.
President Obama and Congress: do the right thing. Ban driving now.