People tend to view product innovations as distinct points on a timeline, but new things are often a culmination of technical progress and human acceptance. This is never more true than with the future of the automobile, where automated driving appears to demand such an exacting blend of technology and humanity.

Long ago we decided to assign portions of the driving experience to a machine. Trust developed because we retained agency over the features and they worked when we wanted them to work. We mediate these controls explicitly — cruise control can be turned on, but it can be turned off quite readily.

Yet, over the years we offloaded more and more silent tasks to the vehicle, running in the background or only in times of need. Generally under the rubric of safety, these leaps of faith occurred in areas such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, blind spot detection, rear view backup monitoring, pre-crash seatbelt adjustments and the like. These were and are proto-autonomous features, but we did not anticipate the caterpillars would grow into butterflies.

These innovations laid groundwork for the technical progress of the future — and our consent to it. Today your car has a number of ingredients for autonomy if not the full recipe. Socially you could say the same.

What was once trumpeted as progress, such as Ralph Teetor’s modern invention of cruise control some 60 years ago (“New for 1960! Auto-pilot!”), isn’t even tweeted about today. We’re beyond trust — just plain and utter acceptance.

Are we ready to trust autonomous vehicles? We are ready to continue trusting vehicles. Eventually those vehicles will be autonomous. And we’ll accept them.

(Photo by David Marcu)

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