TITLE: A View of Self-Driving Cars from 1956 AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 15, 2016 10:47 AM DESC: ----- BODY: A friend and fellow classic science fiction fan told me that one of his favorite books as a teenager was Robert Heinlein's The Door into Summer. I've read a lot of Heinlein but not this one, so I picked it up at the library. Early in the book, protagonist Daniel B. Davis needed to make the most of the next twenty-fours. He located his car, dropped some money into the "parking attendant", set course, and relaxed as the car headed out into traffic:
Or tried to relax. Los Angeles traffic was too fast and too slashingly murderous for me to be really happy under automatic control; I wanted to redesign their whole installation--it was not a really modern "fail safe". By the time we were west of Western Avenue and could go back on manual control I was edgy and wanted a drink.
This scene is set December 1970; Heinlein wrote it in 1956. He may have missed the year in which self-driving cars were already common technology by 45 years or more, but I think he got the feeling right. People like to be in control of their actions, especially when dropped into hectic conditions they can't control. Heinlein's character is an engineer, so naturally he thinks he could design a better. None of my programmer friends are like this, of course. It's also interesting to note that automatic control was required in the most traffic. Once he got into a calmer setting, Davis could go back to driving himself. The system allows the human to drive only when he isn't a danger to other people, or even himself! Today, it is commonplace to think that the biggest challenges of the move to self-driving cars are cultural, not technological: getting people to accept that the cars can drive themselves more safely than humans can drive them, and getting people to give up control. It's neat to see that Heinlein recognized this sixty years ago. -----