In the 1940s, kids could stand up in the bed of a pickup truck as their parents drove down the road; babies rode in their mothers' laps; and there were no seat belts, padded dashboards, crumple zones, rumble strips, air bags, Bott's dots, anti-lock brakes or traction control.
Perhaps it's because of all this modern safety equipment that traffic deaths have fallen to the lowest rate since the 1940s in most states, even though speeds are faster and traffic much more tangled.
But automobiles and their makers have gone even further. They want to protect themselves from drivers who speed, drink, text, follow too close, and swerve in and out of lanes. So they've come up with the idea of a car that drives itself and keeps the owner away from the controls -- cars that will dominate our roadways by 2050, according to a study by IHS Automotive. The path to domination is clear, according to the study: Self-driving auto sales will jump from 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million per year in 2035, and by 2050 nearly all cars will drive themselves.
These cars gently tells the occupant to sit back, relax, watch a movie and "leave the driving to us" -- that slogan from the yesteryear of Greyhound buses and mass-transit.
"Us," in this case, is a variety of technologies that keep the car on the road, under the speed limit, and away from the bumper of the car in front. "Us" includes GPS satellite navigation, sensors, radar, blind spot alerts and so on.
Google tried the idea first. Then, the company got permission to self-drive in California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan. In most legislation, humans must still be behind the wheel, but that's just window dressing: Technology is in the driver's seat.
And now the plot to turn drivers into passengers has reached Washington, which only this month began deliberations that may require new cars to install anti-collision technology -- vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology that's a sort of social network for cars so they can chat about road conditions and their positioning, and avoid collisions.
According to ABC News, the Government Accountability Office said recently that V2V could prevent as many as 76 percent of potential multi-vehicle collisions, and that in 2011, there were 5.3 million car crashes, injuring 2.2 million people and killing 32,000. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it will announce a decision within a few weeks.
Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.