Just before 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday, more than 100 vehicles collided in a massive pileup on a fog-shrouded stretch of Highway 99 in California's Central Valley. At almost the same moment 250 miles southeast in Victorville, Calif., 11 driverless cars left the starting gate of the Pentagon-sponsored Urban Grand Challenge, a race held to demonstrate that robotic cars could safely share the road with human drivers in an urban environment.
The authorities were still clearing wreckage from a closed Highway 99 when the first robot crossed the finish line to claim the $2 million grand prize.
The contrast between these two events -- a robotic triumph and a human tragedy -- underscores a simple and welcome fact. Well before the middle of this century, humans will be shoved out of the driver's seat and robotic chauffeurs will take over.
Sure, some vehicles will still allow a human to sit behind the wheel, but a vigilant robot "adviser" will be watching their every move, quietly fixing their mistakes while scanning for hazards down the road. Only hobbyists on closed courses will be allowed the risky pleasure of directly controlling a car as we do today.
This sounds outlandish, but no less outlandish than the notion that humans could be trusted behind a wheel to begin with. A century after the automobile's invention, nearly three-quarters of a million people a year -- almost 45,000 in the United States alone -- die in traffic accidents on this globe, proof that we are lousy drivers and getting worse all the time.
The problem is that everything that makes us human also conspires to make us horrible drivers. We are emotional, easily distracted and too often just downright stupid. We multi-process poorly and still insist on chatting on our cell phones while roaring down the interstate.
Our eyesight is suspect and our hearing is terrible, even when the radio isn't blasting out the latest Foo Fighters hit. And we lack even the most rudimentary appreciation of Newtonian physics, happily tailgating at 80 miles per hour in rush hour traffic.
Judgment is evident on the highway only by its absence. The firefighters at the Highway 99 pileup reported a 2-foot visibility in the dense fog and yet they could hear speeding cars smashing into the back of the mile-long tangle even as they were trying to rescue the first victims.
In contrast, robots can be programmed with a cool Spock-like logic and given sensory powers that would make even Superman swoon. The robots in the Victorville race had the entire California vehicle code programmed into their memories and sensed distances to a fraction of an inch. They could see in the dark and through the sort of fog that blinded the drivers on Highway 99.
Most important, and quite unlike humans, robots can be upgraded. The Victorville robots are but the first members of a class of devices that will advance along a steep curve like that traced by computers and the Internet over the last two decades. Saturday's winners will seem as musty as a 1950s Univac in just a few years.
A world of robotic vehicles thus, is about much more than safer cars. The Pentagon sponsored the Grand challenge in hopes of removing vulnerable human drivers from one-third of its logistics convoys by 2015, but the civilian spinoffs are even more dramatic.