When 'Driver' Goes the Way of 'Computer'

A computer was once a human who computed; how long until "a driver" is a machine that drives?
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The Google driverless car prototype (Google)

Google has shown off a new driverless vehicle prototype, a cute little thing with no wheel or other control mechanisms. Previously, the company had installed its software and hardware on stock Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses.

The new prototype is the embodiment of something that Google, its affiliates, and other self-driving car thinkers have been talking about for a while: if the driver doesn't need controls, the whole car can be redesigned. 

"For over a century, the assumption in car design is that you will have a driver. The whole proportion of the vehicle, where we put powertrains, and where other things have been laid out rests on the assumption that you'll have a driver and the human factors associated with that," Larry Burns, former head of R&D at GM and a consultant to Google, told me at a Google event. "I think this is not evolutionary but a major shift in how we think about personal mobility."

Another Google consultant Brad Templeton has been talking up this kind of transformation for years, too. He's got an entire page dedicated to the design changes that can come from as Burns put it, "tak[ing] the driver out of the loop."

  • Range is much less important
  • Battery problems are considerably reduced
  • Refueling is not usually done while humans travel
  • Single passenger vehicles will be much more common
  • Reverse and face to face seating
  • The steering wheel vanishes
  • Windshield requirements are different
  • Cargo space is not necessary in all vehicles
  • Acceleration is not a big requirement
  • Cars may be much lighter
  • Suspensions can be super-soft

If all these people—along with the host of other car manufacturers—are right about this stuff and driverless cars become ubiquitous, a friend of mine pointed out that a fascinating thing could happen

driver could come to mean the machine that drives just as a computer is a machine that computes. 

Computers at work!

If that seems implausible, consider that the meaning of "a computer" as a person (usually a woman) who computed was entirely established for a long time before ENIAC.

There are books about this time, like When Computers Were Human. And pocket histories. Papers detailing human computers' efforts during the war. Webster's dictionary from 1828 (and 1913) defines computer as "one who computes," though the latter edition allows it could be a machine that computes, too.

Still, the point is, weird as it feels: a computer was a human for more than two hundred years. And in the span of some decades, that meaning has been completely and totally drained from the word.

The playwright and choreographer Cara de Fabio explored this transition through her grandmother's story in her recent play, She Was a Computer. the shift from computer as human to computer as machine happened in living memory.


Born in 1916, the youngest of 10, she went to a vocational high school to learn a trade, and ended up in a finishing course to become a Comptometer operator.

“You know what a comptometer is don’t you? NO? Well it was a machine, that added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, but all by hand.”

She would sit in front of a metal box, cousin of the cash register, sibling of the typewriter, and plug numbers in, and spit numbers out.

Rows of girls would do this all day to keep the books straight. In a time when progress looked much like a photo from a factory in China, my grandmother was one of those workers, manufacturing math. Somewhere between the abacus and the calculator, my kin was crunching numbers with bone and flesh. 

She was a computer.

Just think about it: how awkward are the phrases, "driverless car" or "autonomous vehicle" or "automated vehicle"? These are the "horseless carriage" of our day.

How much easier would it be to simply apply the logic of computer and call a car like Google's a driver? Take it for a test drive. For example: "I took a driver to the store." Or, "A driver picked me up." Or: "It's like Uber but for drivers."

This linguistic change won't happen overnight. It won't happen in a decade. But give it thirty years and I'd bet some sort of linguistic compromise is made. Our language lives and adapts. If autonomous vehicles succeed, they will eat the previous meanings of words.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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