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Malcolm Gladwell looks at the future of self-driving cars

Gladwell on self-driving cars
Malcolm Gladwell looks at the future of self-driving cars 06:55

The growing excitement, or dread, over the advent of self-driving vehicles can make it seem like so-called autonomous cars, buses and trucks are about to speed onto our roadways and forever change the face of transportation in the U.S.

Not likely, said author Malcolm Gladwell in speaking with CBSN about the future of the technology. Gladwell, an avowed car buff who edited a special section on driverless vehicles in the November issue of "Car and Driver Magazine," said a host of issues must be resolved before self-driving cars hit the streets en masse.

One key factor affecting how quickly the tech goes mainstream is, not surprisingly, people's emotions about entrusting their fate to a potentially lethal machine.

Inside the "town" created to teach driverless cars 05:16

"You may be far more risk-averse or far more upset by something going wrong if you've surrendered control to a machine than if you were in charge yourself," Gladwell said. "It's not enough to say there may be fewer accidents if we go to driverless cars. The real question is, how will we feel about the accidents that happen once we've handed over control to a machine?"

Take the example of a child playing in her driveway who has accidentally kicked a ball into the street. While a human driver may have the experience and judgment to brake in anticipation of the child chasing the ball straight into traffic, for now it remains unclear how a computer-piloted car would react. 

"It's a social calculation. You make that calculation because you have children and you've seen them play," said Gladwell, author of such best-selling books as "The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference" and "Outliers: The story of success."

In a poll earlier this year, AAA found that that 78 percent of Americans are afraid to ride in a fully driverless car.

How do Americans feel about automation? 04:28

Another issue that has yet to be addressed, Gladwell noted: crime. The surge in computer hacking in recent years should raise concerns about the security of digitally controlled vehicles.

Finally, it's important not to forget the pleasure that many people get from driving, especially in a country where Americans are famously in love with their cars.

Said Gladwell, "Are we going to just walk away from something that's brought us so much joy over the years? I'm not sure we are."

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