Drivers wanted

The general consensus among experts is we’re headed toward a future in which humans driving cars will seem downright archaic.

In a new Vox essay, New York University data journalism professor Meredith Broussard disagrees.

She thinks the era of the autonomous car is far from inevitable, and not because researchers won’t be able to perfect the tech — she argues that it’s the role drivers currently play in society that we won’t be able to live without.

Safety first

On Wednesday, Vox published Hindsight 2070, a series of 15 articles penned by experts in various fields, each answering the same question: “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?”

Broussard was one of those experts, and she believes the existence of “unspoken social contracts” between riders and drivers will make driverless cars seem “unthinkable” to future generations.

In Vox, she describes an incident in which she witnessed a Manhattan bus driver calm an agitated passenger.

“The simple explanation for why this situation didn’t escalate: the unspoken social contract of the bus driver’s authority in this space,” she wrote.

Essentially, she argues that having someone “in charge” makes public transportation feel safer, especially for marginalized groups.

“It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle… because it doesn’t feel safe to be alone in a small, enclosed space with strange men,” she wrote.

Just say no

Broussard’s Vox piece doesn’t cite any studies establishing the role drivers play in keeping shared transportation safe or at least safe-feeling, but her anecdotal evidence is thought-provoking.

Today, much of the autonomous car conversation is focused on when we’ll perfect the tech, with occasional diversions to discuss how the vehicles might impact traffic, decrease accidents, or increase unemployment.

The idea that a driverless future will make passengers feel less safe from the threat of other people isn’t talked about much, if at all — but Broussard thinks we’ll soon realize that it’s a discussion we should have been having all along.

“In 50 years, we’ll likely regret spending so much on this futile, antisocial endeavor,” she wrote for Vox. “It’s time to collectively say no to the fantasy of the driverless car and invest in making our existing transportation systems better.”