THE BLOG
02/20/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

The Driverless Car -- And the End of Road Rage?

The idea of driverless cars may seem like a sci-fi fantasy now, but they are already being tested and driven. And they work, so it's already a matter of time before they begin appearing on our roads. The first of these cars are being tested by Google, as Megan McArdle describes in a Daily Beast article: "Are Driveless Cars Really in Our Near Future" -- and in a series of articles on Forbes.com, Chunka Mui, who helps companies design and stress-test their innovation strategies, reflects on the implications of these cars. Among other things, he suggests that Google's driverless car will be worth $2 trillion a year or more in revenues, and it would save millions from reducing traffic accidents, wasted commute time and energy, and the number of cars on the road by 90%. He suggests that driverless cars will dramatically reduce human error, the number one cause of accidents, and people can spend their time in cars enjoying all kinds of entertainment provided by electronics companies and app makers. Plus now the manufacturers will become responsible in the case of accidents, since the liability will depend on "the driving skills of the car" rather than the owner. And very soon these cars will be appearing on the road, especially from Google, now that California recently passed legislation for driverless cars, with backup drivers.

But what about road rage? None of the articles I read about driverless cars said anything about that, and I began to wonder how the advent of these cars might affect the growing phenomena of road rage by furious drivers -- not only affected by accidents but by the driver's behavior in another car. So far there have been so many of these incidents -- about 1,500 people a year are seriously injured or killed in these traffic disputes,, and many thousands if not millions more have these confrontations with someone who is raging, that the American Psychiatric has even coined its own diagnosis. It's known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder and, according to the National Safety Commission, it is characterized by "a degree of aggressiveness that is grossly out of proportion to any influencing events." It is even considered a form of temporary insanity in which the enraged person wants to hurt other people or destroy property, and it's mostly found in young men.

So what happens when a driverless car is involved in a incident that might provoke road rage? Sure, if two driverless cars are in an accident, it's mainly a question for the manufacturers to decide -- whose software was at fault, and then the guilty car-maker pays. So no road rage, because no one's driving the car -- though perhaps if there's a back-up driver or people enjoying themselves in the back of the car -- maybe they could still get mad and jump out of the car to confront any one who happens to be in the other car, and if not, perhaps they might still take it out on the poor defenseless driverless car. Likewise, if one driverless car cuts off another on the road, it's just following the directives from its software, and the other driverless car isn't going to get mad. It's software will just register the passing car.

But what about in the long period of transition, when a car with a real driver encounters a driverless car in an accident or gets angry when such a car cuts it off in traffic or maneuvers more quickly into a parking space on a crowded city street or parking lot? What happens to the feelings of anger that might normally turn into road rage when one infuriated driver is sufficiently riled up to strike out at another? But if no one is driving a driverless car, there might be no other person to blame, just the car's faulty software. So the enraged driver might just calm down, though perhaps in some cases, take aim at the car with a good kick, bat, gun, or other object.

Thus, at least actual injuries and deaths due to road rage are likely to go down, since these encounters will involve two driveless cars who can't attack anyone -- just record whatever happened on their onboard cams. Or if the encounter pits someone driving a real car against a driveless car, the angry individual will have no person at fault -- just a car with no one at a wheel -- which might be the end of the incident, since it can be hard to get or stay mad at a car, or at most the person might beat up on the car, which can't fight back, though the risk is having every recorded on video. Or then again, maybe attacked cars might be programmed to respond back if attacked, say by having folded up knives and pincers like the cars of the future in sci-fi films do. So if anyone dares to attack - watch out, the car might zap you back, which might discourage road rage, too.

In any case, it would seem on balance there's likely to be much road rage as more and more driverless cars hit the road. But the likely alternative is a bonanza for lawyers who can now sue the manufacturers with lots of money for any errors in the software in these new driveless cars -- which is likely to be much more than anything obtained due to limits on insurance or drivers who have less money. In turn, this might trigger a new kind of rage. Call it "driverless liability disorder" or DLD, and maybe the American Psychiatric Association may come up with an official diagnosis for that, too.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings