There is a video on the Tesla website that shows something magical: a car driving itself through a foggy Silicon Valley suburb. The man in the driving seat, we are told, is there only ‘for legal reasons’. He is a lumpen spectator as his car manoeuvres through junctions, around traffic cones and back to its home. Monitors show what the robot car is seeing as it makes its way along the road. The car detects and classifies objects, putting coloured boxes around things like other cars, cyclists and road signs. If these things are moving, the software predicts their next steps. Ten years ago, a self-driving car seemed impossible, but here it is, driving past pedestrians who are happily unaware of the magic on their streets.
Should we believe our eyes? Alongside the hype, we have seen high-profile failures. In May 2016, Joshua Brown died instantly when neither he nor his Tesla, which was in autopilot mode, saw a truck that was crossing the road ahead of him. Two years later, Elaine Herzberg was killed by a self-driving Uber while walking her bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona. The achievements of Uber, Tesla and Waymo (Google’s self-driving company) are extraordinary. But are they good enough? Are we ready to hand over control of our cars, and possibly our futures, to Silicon Valley?
A video on the website of a car company is an unreliable guide to the future. So too, unfortunately, is this book. Lawrence D Burns, who tells his story here with the help of journalist Christopher Shulgan, is a car man, a Detroit insider who lived through the