In the early 1970s the literary magazine Bananas published a science-fiction story of mine which imagined in sketchy but fanciful detail the self-driving cars of the 21st century: ‘ownerless, transistorized pedal-cars, whispering about on fat plastic wheels, wire-guided, kept apart by sensors, trundling softly around at 15 mph while the occupants work on their theses, discuss democracy, sniff glittering white powders or engage in perverse sex acts.’ None of this is to the liking of Mr Murgatroyd, the story’s main character, a cantankerous old fellow who still runs a beloved 1958 Vauxhall Velox on cooking gas, and chafes at the 22 mph performance limit of the egg-like plastic cars, propelled by ‘tiny, hydrogen-fuelled ceramic turbines’, imposed by England’s post-capitalist Social Devolution regime.

Now it is the 21st century and capitalism is still with us; but car manufacturers big and small, along with the communications giant Google and other experts on the computing side, are working on self-driving cars and their associated computery; some predict affordable ones on the road within ten or twelve years. Allegedly competent prototype vehicles have been produced in small, very costly numbers and are driving about in California and Nevada: not just on test tracks but on roads, including highways; sometimes, it is claimed, in dense traffic at ‘highway speeds’. Slightly breathless pieces by individuals who have been given rides in these cars, hands-off (but with a driver sitting behind the wheel ‘just in case’), seem to suggest that the self-driving or ‘smart’ car is just round the corner, give or take a bit of fine tuning to sensors (video, radar, ‘lidar’—a type of radar using light—and ultrasonic or infrared distance sensors) and actuators for accelerator, brakes and steering, along with a few more terabytes of software to make it all work.

Perhaps. There’s nothing surprising in the somewhat tabloid focus of Wired magazine or the Economist on the high-end futuristic glamour of a world in which automobiles will work all the time instead of lying idle, will turn up when they are wanted and otherwise make themselves scarce, will take you where you want to be and then go home and put themselves to bed until required. And will supposedly—with their very fast, 100 per cent accurate responses to sudden or developing hazards—eliminate the human error that accounts for the majority of road accidents and crashes. For example, they will never fail to check the nearside rear-view mirror before turning, as all human drivers sometimes do, for that cyclist hammering down the gutter, liable to be crushed or deflected into a plateglass window. Cars are expensive after all, and many users aren’t very good at them: continuously anxious when driving, forced into a ‘radical dependence’ on the commercial service industry for maintenance and repairs. The autonomous car seems to hold out a promise of relief from personal involvement in any of that.

But hold on a minute. What is being sketched here, in patchy but hopeful fashion, sometimes resembles what might be called a paradigm shift. Without even looking at the machine itself—that amorphously defined but widely talented robotic device that will save us money, absolve us of personal responsibility for road crashes and otherwise be seen, when authorized, and not heard, much like a well-behaved Victorian child—what is suggested seems to imply a transformation of the mode of production, consumption and private ownership of the automobile, which remains a central (if slowly declining) pillar of global consumer capitalism (the industry is currently suffering from a massive glut in worldwide manufacturing capacity, exacerbated by China’s entry into large-scale car production).

It’s true that the autonomous automobile is not the exclusive project of technical think-tanks and semi-academic project teams, which tend to be apolitical—effectively left-wing in this context—in their focus on the device itself, and are liable airily to propose things like (for example) a renewal of the entire us highway system. Indeed in the us, where autonomous vehicles have been legalized in two states, one set of proposals includes the posting of a $1 million bond by companies wishing to enter the market: effectively to prevent garage tinkerers from going out on the road not with dangerous vehicles, but with undercapitalized ones. Figures like Edison and Henry Ford, both of whom used patent law and the power of raw capital to protect their own monopolization of other people’s inventions, would surely have approved.

But never mind that either. There seems a good reason why some are convinced that the autonomous, bon enfant, better-than-us car will be with us before too long: most of the technology required already exists in one form or another and is being tested over millions of road miles in the cars that people are driving now.footnote1 The pressures causing this evolution come essentially from three concerns that mainstream car users have: with ecology, economy and safety. It seems appropriate briefly to review these developments, most of which have surfaced over the last decade.

Worries about environmental damage and pollution, and the squandering of limited natural resources, are not restricted to eco-warrior and anti-car lobbies but bother a lot of car users in the rich industrial countries. Many are forced to use cars by circumstance, but being told by eco-zealots that they are blighting the future of their children, of the entire planet, can only generate feelings of guilt and obligation. More efficient, less polluting cars would surely be a good thing. It didn’t take consumers or the industry long to twig that more efficient ought to mean cheaper to run. Less polluting though was a different matter, apart from the obvious fact that consuming smaller quantities of hydrocarbons would logically result in less pollution per mile. Initially national governments (and in the us, state governments too) set standards for fuel consumption and emissions to be met by manufacturers by given dates, and the car makers set about producing vehicles to suit. On the road now in increasing numbers are three categories of so-called ‘green’ cars, none free of problems and contradictions: battery-powered electric cars, petrol–electric hybrids and evolved diesels, these days always turbocharged.footnote2