It’s unfortunate that the world “automobile” is already in existence and means “car,” since we really need a word for the idea of autonomously piloted robot cars which could have enormous benefits if they became widespread. There are, however, a lot of regulatory barriers to this. As long as the highways are full of human-piloted cars people are naturally reluctant to let untested autocars cruise the streets. But by the same token, it’s difficult to know how autocars can prove their safety and reliability if we don’t let them on the road. At earlier stages of human development we tended to take a “life is cheap” attitude to discovery and technology (compare the casualty rate of Columbus’ voyages to NASA) that facilitated progress at the cost of a lot of death and destruction. These days, we’ve got things pretty good and tend to be risk-averse.
To me, thinking aout this is mostly a reminder that relative American decline in the face of rapid growth in poor countries is a good thing for the United States. Maybe America will never find a way out of the catch-22 that autocars can’t prove their safety until they drive on real streets and they can’t drive on real streets until they prove their safety. Maybe it’ll happen in Brazil. Or South Africa. There’ll be crashes, engineers will learn, the product will improve, and then one day we’ll just copy it. Letting someone else work out the kinks of new systems is often a great solution to a thorny problem. And the more China, India, etc. catch up to the size of our market the more things will be developed in those markets that we can copy.