They're being hailed as America's next great lifestyle revolution.
Automakers are increasingly exploring the market for such an innovative transportation option, and creating new technologies in anticipation of its promise. But who's really on-board with the whole concept?
Sure, the number of lives experts say can be saved by taking humans out of the driving equation is high. And it's not like driverless cars will take over our roadways anytime soon; plenty of the technology, laws, and standards necessary to implement the driverless concept still need to be invented, not just refined. That means we have time to prepare, both logistically, and in terms of our driving mindset.
However, isn't it just a bit ironic that, just when America's environmentalists and techno-geeks have been able to froth up their pitch for driverless cars, the North American International Auto Show opened today in Detroit?
And instead of a driverless car, the new automobile commanding most of the attention today was Chevrolet's brand-new 2014 Corvette? This isn't just any Corvette either, mind you, but the 2014 Stingray, a rare breed of Corvette that boasts extraordinary power and - for this fiberglass fantasy - remarkable fuel efficiency and structural rigidity. It's Chevy's no-holes-barred attempt to muscle back into the elite halo of muscle car bragging rights, which helps explain its uncanny resemblance to its brand's lesser sibling, the mass-market Camaro.
After all, if the public is pushing for self-driven cars, why should we care whether this new Corvette carries on America's premiere sports car legacy or not?
Most of the journalists who are writing stories about driverless cars live either in California or the Northeast, where congested roadways and hours-long commutes are frustratingly common. Most of these writers are also men whose idea of a commute is probably more singular, in terms of getting to the office and back home, rather than tangential, like a woman's list of errands she runs before and after work. Since the average American rush hour commute is 25 minutes one-way, however, the grief experienced by these male journalists in our big cities likely isn't as bad for everybody else as they assume it to be. Granted, nobody likes being stuck in traffic, but are most Americans anxious to give up conventional driving for self-driving cars?
If we are, why the fuss over Chevy's newest hot rod, or Detroit's flagship auto show in general? It's not that today is an otherwise slow news day; we get heavy reporting of Detroit's annual winter car carnival every year. And if news organizations didn't think the public was interested in the new offerings from the world's automakers, isn't there plenty of other non-news to report instead of what next year's Jeeps are going to look like?
Rather, isn't this fuss over the new Corvette simply to be expected from a car buying public that loves cars? Sure, most of us understand most of us only need - or can afford - a utilitarian vehicle, but we still like to drool over hot automobiles, don't we? Sure, a driverless car sounds wonderful for people who endure a mind-numbing and nerve-wracking bumper-to-bumper crawl to and from work every day. But how many people purchase the Corvette Stingray for ordinary commutes? Corvettes are about a state of mind, much like Bentleys, which ooze idyllic luxury, or massive 4x4 pickup trucks, which reek of testosterone. They're illogical vehicles, but we still ogle them.
And that can't be good news for fans of the driverless car.
As much common sense as such driverless technology may hold, American society does not value common sense as much as it does power, speed, luxury, image, and individuality - all things that driverless cars will minimize, if not obliterate.
Who needs a powerful car when a street grid adapted for driverless cars tells your onboard computer how much you can accelerate? And who needs speed when your computer will regulate how fast you can go?
Who needs luxury when so many of a car's gadgets will become standardized so computers from different vehicles can communicate more seamlessly? After all, our idea of luxury isn't based on how many gadgets a car has, but how many gadgets your car has that other cars don't.
Who needs image when the standardization this technology will inevitably require levels the automotive playing field? And by this time, you've no individuality left, since it's not your car anymore, but in reality, the street's. According to some proposed driverless scenarios, which include massive car-swapping paradigms, the car you ride home may not even be the same one you ride back to the office in the morning.
Take the concept of driverless cars to their logical conclusion, and you don't have the Great American Automobile anymore, but a glorified mass transit system in the form of individualized pods.
To the extent that, yes, such a system would save tens of thousands of lives per year, thanks to incredible accident-avoidance technology, it could be argued that driverless cars would be worth the investment. Even if the auto industry never makes it to a totally driverless future, some of the safety inventions it comes up with in the meantime could themselves be worth the ride. Just don't be sucked into thinking all that technology would cost you less than what you drive now!
But as Americans - and indeed, drivers around the world - react to Chevy's new Corvette this week, do any of the environmentalists and computer nerds pushing for driverless technology think their battle for driverless cars - and by extension, driverless driveways, streets, and freeways - will be won on the basis of safety and efficiency?
Who actually needs a two-seater fiberglass box on wheels that can rocket from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds? Who needs 450 horsepower or a multi-tone exhaust system? Nobody needs the new Corvette, but a lot of people would love to own one. The dream of roaring down a deserted road with your love interest sitting beside you, eating up the pavement as your mighty machine responds instinctively to your every turn of the wheel or shift of its gears... it's the stuff that car commercials are made of, and it's what car buyers want to imagine for themselves.
Even as we putz along in morning traffic, the reality of our daily grind slapping us in the face every time we have to tap the brakes, crawling through one accident scene after another, wondering why life has to be so hard... there's a little bit of Corvette owner in many of us that hopes for a faster, sexier, automotive future.
Right now, however, it's unlikely driverless cars will be faster or sexier. Safe and convenient, maybe, but oh, so dull. Yes, they may take away much of the pain we experience in normal driving scenarios, but are Americans willing to give up the Corvette dream for a commute that's all about equalizing the experience for everybody on the road?
Just look at what most people are talking about in Detroit's auto show. And that's probably your answer.