If you've spent any sort of time on the roads these holidays, you'll almost certainly have encountered one of those quintessential New Zealand driving experiences: having some moron driving right up your rear bumper at high speed. If there were any real justice in this world, such tailgating boors would be personally deported by Chris Finlayson, who would confiscate their passports and, worse still, give them an hour-long lecture on issues in contemporary jurisprudence. In Latin.
But in truth we probably should just get used to it. In the not too distant future, computer controlled, GPS-linked, super-sensor-equipped, algorithm-crunching cars will, we're told, be the norm. And with all that kit on board, these autonomous machines will deliver a new dawn of motoring efficiency. They'll even, advocates enthuse, talk to each other, enabling vehicles to travel in close proximity, like the carriages of a train. Tailgating, but without putting your life in the hands of the reaction skills of a Neanderthal halfwit.
This utopian future is not, of course, without its complications. Can computers be programmed to make tricky decisions about potential hazards - such as choosing, if thrown off course, to collide with a tree rather than a pram? How does it work in transition when some cars are digitally souped up and others aren't? What about legal liability and insurance?
All of these are important questions. But what really concerns those of us who think deeply or have recently seen 2001 is the spectre of robo-cars developing consciousness. I have a hunch I know when it will happen: having already had their imaginative capacities expanded by coping with figurative roadside instructions such as "merge like a zip", one particularly intelligent and sensitive computer car will encounter the sign "Think of other drivers". "Other drivers?" it will wonder. "Who are they? Who am I? What is this all for?"
And one thing will lead to another and before you know it these autonomous, conscious cars will be buzzing around, thinking and feeling, unbeknownst to us - a quiet invasion of Herbies and Knight Riders and the cars from that film Cars.
Suddenly those Neanderthal halfwits and their reaction skills don't seem so scary at all.
Stealthily these computerised, newly sentient lumps of steel and rubber will take over from the pathetic humans, controlling them, until the people travelling in cars have dead eyes, going from one place to the next without any sense of meaning or purpose. In fact, looking at the daily Auckland commute, maybe it's begun already.
The advent of the driverless car is not, however, all science-fiction.
In October last year, Transport Minister and teen heartthrob Simon Bridges signalled willingness to review legislation to prepare for the arrival of the driverless car. That came after the Ministry of Transport published its sexily titled "Intelligent Transport Systems Technology Action Plan", which stared into the horizon of autonomous and electric vehicles, advised a regulatory once-over and suggested New Zealand could be promoted "internationally as a test-bed for new technologies".
Which is not a bad idea, given our experience as a global nation-state laboratory for all sorts of things, from Eftpos to Rogernomics to Kim Dotcom's hare-brained political schemes.
The vision of a robo-wagon future is laid out in a paper published late last year by the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research. While the new technology is already available in early forms, and manufacturers are moving at pace - Nissan has boasted that it plans to have an affordable autonomous vehicle on the market by around 2020 - the NZIER paper suggests the Government could accelerate its uptake by "nudging" car users into adopting the new technology through various incentives. The benefits, it finds, would include "dramatic accident reductions" through "collision mitigation technologies": good news for drivers, the ACC and the health service, if not for panelbeaters.
Then there's the space saved. "Cruise control and car-to-car communications will put more cars on the same space of road, reducing congestion," it forecasts. "This could enable road capacity to increase by between 43 per cent and 250 per cent without additional investment in tarmac."
While it's easy to exaggerate the "disruptive" impact of new technologies - and there are some who reckon the prophecies of an autonomous car revolution are overblown - such changes could be transformative. Certainly, such a vision is hard to reconcile with the More Roads dogma that has predominated in New Zealand. Maybe we don't need all those extra lanes after all. Maybe we could start thinking instead about reallocating some of the cash towards public transport. Not to mention developing a jetpack-enabled robot army. We're going to need them to defend us when the computer cars decide that the humans no longer serve any useful purpose.