I happen to live in one of the relatively few places in the U.S. where you really don’t need a car. In fact, you don’t even need to know how to drive. Manhattanites tend to walk a lot, and for those places too far to walk, there is generally a convenient subway or bus at any hour of the day or night.
But most of America depends the automobile to get around. This is a source of one of the great contradictions of life in the U.S.A. You see, Americans like to drink, yet it is illegal in most places to get drunk and then try to drive home. The laws that limit alcohol consumption for drivers exist for a good reason: Automobile related deaths are a large and tragic statistic that our society continually struggles with.
In recent years Google has been funding an initiative that first came out of a DARPA initiative: To create an automobile that can drive itself. Technical progress has been remarkable, and some very smart people are predicting that within the next ten years our nation will switch over completely to self-driving automobiles.
This will immediately remove one of the terrors of our streets and highways — the death toll from drunk drivers. You would think that this is a good thing, right?
Well, hold on a minute. As soon as your car can take you home in whatever state of intoxication you find ourself, there will be no reason for people to hold back. You will be able to get as sloshed as you want, and you will still arrive home safely.
All across America, there may be millions of citizens who, whenever they go out for the evening, are currently making sure to keep their drinking in check — just because there is otherwise no legal and safe way to get back home.
But if you can drink to your heart’s content and still end up safe in your bed at the end of the night, many of those people will no longer have the same incentive to hold back. The total amount of drinking might increase by quite a bit.
And some people who, as a practical matter, are currently holding it together, might tip over to become full fledged alcoholics. The ravages of chronic alcohol abuse might cause those people to die sooner.
So it is conceivable — depending on the numbers — that self-driving cars might end up lowering average life expectancy in our country.
That would be sad.