Things quickly get out of hand. The robot assaults a police officer.

Then it drives crazily on the streets . . .

across the surface of the moon . . .

and even on the rings of Saturn.

“The Automatic Motorist” played on long-simmering anxieties about the possibilities of automated transport. Victorians, for example, worried (paywall) that the unprecedented speeds of railroad travel could send women’s uteruses hurling from their bodies, among other dangers.

In 1896, during the early days of the gas-powered automobile, a contributor to a British scientific journal warned that the vehicles were inherently less safe than the horse-drawn carriages they soon would replace, as a human driver “has not the advantage of the intelligence of the horse in shaping his path.”

New technologies are always accompanied by fears of their potential dangers to morals and physical safety. AsChristopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University, told the Atlantic in 2015, “People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology.”

Of course, surrendering control of administrative tasks to a machine is one thing. Surrendering control of one’s body is another.

Transportation triggers anxieties that are difficult to overcome with rational numbers alone. Airplanes are far safer than cars, yet fearful people cancel plane reservations and take to the road after the rare air disaster occurs.

“It’s a classic reflex—new things threaten our sense of order and control and it lasts briefly until our addiction with convenience takes root. Same with self-driving cars,” Faith Popcorn, a futurist and CEO of the consultancy BrainReserve, wrote in an email to Quartz.

We can take heart that driverless cars won’t text while driving, or get drunk. They promise to be much safer than human-powered rides. If history is any guide, when the next transportation revolution comes along we’ll be as reluctant to give up autonomous cars as we were to take over from horses. But that hasn’t stopped people from fearing driverless cars yet.


📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.