It is a terrifying and not uncommon sight where I live: a car heading down the street, with nobody behind the wheel. Has the handbrake broken? Or the car’s electronic system been activated by cyber attackers, intent on eliminating us one at a time?

Although there have been a few instances of brakes failing, sending cars hurtling into a wall, usually the answer is more mundane: the driver is tiny.

If viewed side-on there would be the reassuring sight of two hands gripping the wheel, possibly white-knuckled, as he or she navigates their way, chin raised as if to keep their head above water. With one particular driver, only the glint of sun on her spectacles indicates a human presence.

Soon, however, according to industry experts, we might need to get used to seeing vehicles with no-one at the controls.

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In his recent role as guest editor of the Today programme, James May, who is to cars what Nigella is to cholesterol, spoke to Mark Harper, UK minister for transport, about the advent of self-driving cars.

Harper explained that in light of legislation which he expects will pass through parliament by the end of this year, “Probably by as early as 2026, people will start seeing some elements of these cars that have full self-driving capabilities being rolled out.”

By this date, he indicated, it was probable that those behind the wheel would not be legally obliged to keep their eyes on the road. So, as they soon hurtle down such roads as are approved for autonomous vehicles they could, presumably, be doing a crossword or watching Netflix.

The Westminster government has been a staunch advocate of driverless transport. In the King’s Speech earlier this year, it was stated that “self-driving vehicles will make transport safer, more convenient and more accessible, improving the lives of millions.”

Keen to emphasise the positives, Harper stressed that high among the benefits of this technology is not just a reduction in traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries, but the access to transport it will offer to those with learning difficulties or other disabilities that currently bar them from the road.

At present, they are unable to enjoy the same freedom as those of us who can get into the car and go wherever we like. When robotic vehicles become mainstream, or so the argument goes, their lives will be transformed.

The Herald: But will the banter be up to traditional taxi driver standard?But will the banter be up to traditional taxi driver standard? (Image: free)

If that were so, then I would have thought that for people such as my husband, who does not drive and has never wanted to, this would sound appealing. Sadly, he has no interest whatsoever. Not just that, he thinks the fewer vehicles on the road, of whatever sort, the better. For once we are in agreement.

Surely what we need is to wean ourselves off our individual motorised pods, which are clogging up our streets, and instead embrace public transport, driverless or otherwise. If the money spent on such high-tech development was used instead to upgrade public transport networks, especially in rural areas, that would be of far more immediate and long-term social and environmental benefit.

Since there’s as much chance of that happening as of us returning to horse and cart, we need instead to consider a future where we hand over the gear box to an inanimate force.

Whereas we humans have physically evolved to function at no more than running pace – and for many of us a snail’s – AI can react to supersonic speeds without a moment’s hesitation.

Whether this is reassuring remains to be seen. While our array of instruments – eyes, ears, motor functions – are no different from those of the ancient Egyptians, robotic cars will be fitted with radar, camera, ultrasound, and radio antennae. In theory, they will out-perform us. They will be us, on our very best days, but a little bit better.

It's easy enough to accept limited use of driverless vehicles, as, say, in an airport shuttle service, when the route is tightly controlled and there’s no oncoming traffic. But when self-driving cars and lorries are on the motorway alongside ordinary cars is the crunch point (no pun intended). Things might start to feel strange, but perhaps in a good way.

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Would you rather be overtaken by a steadily cruising self-governing car where the passenger was glued to their phone screen, or by an olde worlde vehicle in which a man had jammed his can of coke between his knees so he could adjust the sound system, while going at over 80 mph? I once watched someone doing just that, while on the Edinburgh to Glasgow bus, and feared we’d come across his wreckage before we reached Harthill.

James May asked one expert if the technology was likely to be advanced enough soon for a robotic car to collect him from the pub and return him to his rural home. The answer, in short, was no. That would be my benchmark too: a car without a driver that is capable of negotiating winding, pot-holed country roads, with the risk of cattle, badgers or horse-riders around every corner. When technology can cope with the hazards and unpredictability such everyday driving throws up, then I will be a convert.

How enjoyable to strap myself in and finish the latest series of The Crown on my way to the Co-op.

As yet, such an outing seems very far off. More probable is that by the end of the decade we’ll be growing accustomed to autonomous cars on motorways, and think nothing of it. With talk of flying cars as the next step – far scarier, to my mind – anything with four wheels will soon seem as unthreatening as a Reliant Robin.

More troublesome than getting the public to have confidence in the technology, I suspect, will be accepting our lowlier status as non-drivers. Becoming effectively a passenger rather than the one in control will be a huge psychological leap, especially for those for whom a car is not just a means of getting from one place to another, but a statement of personality.

Tailgating, honking, overtaking on blind corners are part of the thrill for cretinous drivers for whom their metal box is an extension of themselves. The toughest PR battle won’t be to assure us that self-driving cars are safe. It will be to get us to give up the wheel, and with it our invincible sense of power.