Viewpoint: Self-driving cars will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now

Recently, I rode a bus uptown in Manhattan with a visibly disoriented and distressed man. As we passed 14th Street, the man got up from his seat and started throwing air punches and talking loudly to an imaginary companion. Those of us seated near him started to lean away and wonder if we ought to move.

Then the bus driver’s voice came over the bus’s sound system: “All passengers must remain seated. All passengers riding on this bus, please sit down.” The bus driver sounded authoritative. The man sat down. All the passengers looked relieved. I exchanged a look with a woman seated across the aisle. The look said we were both worried that the boxing man’s behavior might have escalated, and we were grateful for the driver.

The simple explanation for why this situation didn’t escalate: the unspoken social contract of the bus driver’s authority in this space. We have invested years in developing social contracts around both private and public transportation. When you get into a bus or a train, or even a car, you acknowledge that the person at the wheel is in charge. This power relationship is what allows shared transportation to flourish, and this social contract is what helps many of us in marginalized groups feel safer while riding transportation. It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle. Not just because the technology doesn’t work — but because it doesn’t feel safe to be alone in a small, enclosed space with strange men.