Technically they could. But in a driverless world we probably won't want them to.
This week Google revealed designs for a prototype driverless car. The spirit of the traditional automobile remains intact — wheels, chassis, headlights — but many of the features we've come to identify with it are no longer necessary. A true self-driving car may need new external sensors and interior buttons or screens, but it doesn't need a steering wheel or brake and accelerator pedals.
Thinking even further ahead, to a time when fleets of autonomous taxis roam cities, cars won't need to be as large, either. Two seats with some room for baggage is plenty. Once the technology is perfected, front-facing seats themselves might even go away. Why not have seats that face a desk or small tables instead?
So the form of cars as we know them (and, Alexis Madrigal suggests, perhaps the words we use to describe them) is bound to shift with autonomous vehicle technology. But if we accept these changes as a given, the question also becomes whether or not particular driver mindsets will change with them.
Consider the following scenario: It's the driverless car era, and you're running late to a meeting. You get in that cute little car shown above and punch in your destination. You flip through notes for the meeting, but the car travels a safe distance behind those around it and exercises extreme caution at intersections. You stop at a yellow light you might once have blasted through. You curse the car and punch the dash — perhaps there's a silly-human-driver-punch-pad built in.
The point is that right now people have different driving styles, but self-driving cars will all drive more or less the same way. They will only weave in and out of traffic, and whip through yellows, and cut in front of the line at the highway exit, and so on as programmed. So will we be able to customize autonomous vehicles to match our driving personalities?
Put another way: Will it be possible to program a self-driving car for road rage?
From a broad social standpoint, we wouldn't want that to happen. Safety is arguably the biggest benefit of driverless technology, and Google's self-driving car is programmed to be the prototype defensive driver for just that reason. But from a commercial standpoint in a country founded on personal freedoms, the question is an inevitable (if intensely selfish) one.
I posed that question to Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car program, when I rode in the car on city streets in late April. In a strict technical sense, sure, the car could be programmed for aggression. But in line with the safety points mentioned above, Urmson said it's "probably not the right thing to emulate all the human behavior" in programming driverless cars. Here's what he told me:
"There's times when I might be in a taxi and I might be anxious because I'm late to get to the airport. But most of the time I find myself doing something else. I trust that driver is going to get me there. That they're doing the right thing. The hope is you get to the point [in a driverless car] where you're on your phone or reading your book or talking to a loved one instead [of being anxious]. So the priority moves to your interaction in life from how you're lane-changing on the freeway. I guess if you can make that time in the vehicle more meaningful and useful, maybe you don't worry as much time about the time you're spending in it."
So Urmson believes self-driving cars might have a therapeutic effect on aggressive driving styles. Slowly you'll stop noticing the things that once made you irate on the road, and eventually you'll forget they even existed. That's a huge change in how we travel. Riding in cars, in this case, would become more like riding on trains or subways: the occasional unexpected stop will be annoying, but largely outweighed by the chances for diversion.
That's not to say autonomous cars will be entirely equal. At least initially, some degree of customization will come into play with regard to geography. If your self-driving car is in New York City, for instance, it will know that you can't turn right on red. Though it stands to reason that if autonomous cars can change our mindsets about traffic, they will change our mindsets about traffic laws, too.