We often make lists of the best inventions of all time. But which are the worst? The nuclear bomb would be up there. The AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle also has a particular claim to infamy. The World Bank has estimated that there are about 75m such guns in circulation, causing tens of thousands of deaths a year. But one other invention has killed many, many times more people than both of those weapons put together: the motor car. About 1.25m people are killed in road traffic accidents a year, accounting for 2.2 percent of all deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization. Accurate data on how many people in total have been killed by cars in the past century are hard to find.
But 50m seems a fair guess. That compares with the 123m in all wars in the 20th century. If that level of carnage were not bad enough, cars have also contributed massively to environmental pollution and adverse climate change. As an additional malus, the car’s thirst for oil has handed billions of dollars in revenues to some of the world’s most regressive regimes: Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela. Fortunately, the end of the human-driven, petrol-fuelled car may be in sight. Some computer scientists describe driverless car technology as essentially a “solved problem”, even if huge challenges remain before car companies are confident enough to launch fully autonomous passenger vehicles on to the road.
Protocols still need to be worked out to determine how one driverless car will interact with another and how to prevent hacking. But human, rather than technological, resistance seems likelier to be the biggest brake on the driverless car revolution. Whether we are behind the wheel or thinking about new technologies, humans remain inherently erratic. For the moment, governments are putting in place regulations to encourage the adoption of driverless, electric cars and manufacturers are experimenting fast.