People have a tendency to talk about their city’s terrible drivers with a weird sense of pride. In Boston, they’re called Massholes. In Los Angeles, even the 18-wheelers go bumper-to-bumper with cars on the freeway. In Philly, being aggressive and rude behind the wheel is just a given. (The particularly bad drivers, however, are the ones with Jersey plates.)
Wherever you go, it seems, traffic is terrible. Everybody’s tailgating. And nobody’s using blinkers or paying attention. The automobile, the sociologist Henri Lefebvre once said, was “the last refuge of chance and risk in an increasingly controlled and managed society.” And although different cities have their own cultural quirks—in Honolulu, honking your horn is a faux pas unless it’s really an emergency—most bad drivers are bad for the same reasons: People are inconsistent, easily distracted, and generally pretty bad at risk assessment. All this is why self-driving cars promise to save so many lives.
That is, if they ever gain widespread adoption. Google has logged nearly 1.5 million miles of test driving on public roads in autonomous mode, and in all that time its cars have only caused one minor accident. But critics have pointed out that one fatal accident occurs for approximately every 100 million miles that Americans drive, a figure that makes Google’s test driving record seem puny. Academics who focus on robotics and self-driving cars have been quick to note that even as Google expands testing on public roads to other cities beyond Mountain View, California—including Austin and Kirkland, Washington—it still hasn’t taken to the roads in a region that gets a lot of snow and ice.