Move Over, the Robot's Driving

By the year 2050, forecasters predict robots will rule the road.

ByABC News
November 6, 2007, 9:27 AM

Nov. 6, 2007 — -- 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.