Can Americans tolerate a robot car?

Slate explores whether autonomy-loving Americans will be able to handle robot cars.

This American emphasis on the individual’s sovereignty poses a problem for new technologies designed precisely to deny personal agency. Autonomous technological agents—from military drones to the self-driving car—are increasingly prevalent. Their potential benefits and conveniences are immense. Yet as the currently cutting-edge becomes commonplace, these technologies could bump up against the prized American autonomy.

The United States drives more than any other society, and the self-driving car provides the glorious possibility of a hands-free cross-country road trip. But how will it harmonize with American drivers’ varied preferences for tailgating, conscientious speed-limit-monitoring, passive aggression toward walkway pedestrians, or highway-traversing pursuits of the fastest lane? General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Google are each currently testing driverless cars, with intentions to make the vehicle availablefor mass consumption by 2018. Recently, Nevada became the first state to pass legislation asking the Department of Motor Vehicles to formulate guidelines for driverless cars.

While engineers are perfecting the technology, they still must grapple with the drivers, who must both trust and enjoy the automated-car experience. Making a driver-free car safe and effective requires overlooking the uniqueness of each individual’s driver personality. Research suggests that autonomous technological agents like service robots and anthropomorphic computer interfaces can diminish users’ experiences of control. And we hate to give up control.

It is uncanny how many of these robot car issues have already been explored so thoroughly in Total Recall. (Start at the 17 second mark)