"We've lost more Americans on the highways than we've lost in all the wars that we've ever fought," says Jim Hall, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board in a new video from the New York Times. The big push in the 1960s automobile world was about the sexiness and features of the car, Hall recalls, and none of the emphasis was on safety like the then-high-tech safety device known as the air bag.
The Times' excellent Retro Report series takes a look at the history of the air bag but also examines the possible futures of driverless cars. The autonomous automobile is just another step in the long historical arc of people trying to make cars safer. But the video raises questions about various ways in which today's cars can be hacked and how it's pretty much only going to get worse in the future.
Are we ready to surrender control of our cars to robots in the name of security? What are the trade-offs we're willing to accept as motorists? The tech and auto companies, of course, are pretty sure that their recent efforts (despite all the recalls and negative publicity) will make driving on America's roads much safer.
"Imagine never losing someone to a traffic accident ever again," says a Google engineer in voiceover. "This is a huge opportunity to save lives and make the world a better place."
Back in the 1990s, the promise of the self-driving car was one of safety. In fact, in 1991 Congress authorised $US650 million to be spent on developing an automated highway system — something not mentioned in the video, and never fully realised. Will this time around be any different? Will driverless cars bring about the utopia that so many are predicting? I suppose we'll just have to wait and find out.
In the meantime, you can watch the entire Retro Report video above, or read more at the New York Times.
Picture: Screenshot of an air bag test dummy from the New York Times