Tom Standage:

A new kind of vehicle has taken to the roads, and people aren’t sure what to make of it. Is it safe? Can it cope with other road users? Will it require a radical overhaul of the transport infrastructure? The questions that are being asked today about self-driving cars were raised a century ago when the first motor cars roared onto the roads. So how can the concerns raised during the first road revolution help us think about the second?

Safety is the main concern at the moment, after the first fatality in a self-driving car, which took place in May. Joshua Brown, the owner of a Tesla Model S, was killed when he set the car to “Autopilot” mode and it ran into the side of a lorry which its sensors had failed to spot. Autopilot is still in “beta” (ie, it is an unfinished prototype): drivers are supposed to keep their eyes on the road and take over if anything looks amiss. In this case, that did not happen. Tesla notes that this is the first-known fatality in 130m miles of its cars driving themselves; the American average for road deaths is one every 94m miles, and the global average is one every 60m miles. In other words, Autopilot is already safer, on average, than human drivers. But the company, nonetheless, has been criticised for using its customers as guinea pigs for an unfinished and imperfect technology. Never mind that in America alone, around 90 people die in road-traffic accidents every day: Autopilot, it seems, is expected to be flawless.

Exactly the same debate took place a century ago. The first deaths in car accidents attracted much attention – church bells tolled in Memphis, black flags were flown in Detroit and stone memorials erected in Baltimore. The car’s defenders hit back: an Italian car magazine argued in 1912: “Horses, trams, trains can collide, smash, kill half the world, and nobody cares. But if an automobile leaves a scratch on an urchin who dances in front of it, or on a drunken carter who is driving without a light,” then people blamed the scourge of motor cars. Yet people gradually came to accept road deaths. Self-driving cars are being held to an impossible safety standard today, but eventually the benefits of safer – if not perfectly infallible – vehicles will become apparent.