The View From the Passenger Seat

I got my driving license at 17, one year earlier than usual, as part of a pilot program for young drivers in Germany. One of the conditions of the program was that you always had to have an older, more experienced driver with you in the car.

Thankfully, my parents were mostly cool with putting their life into my hands, but I still remember my mom holding on to her door handle for large chunks of most drives. “Are you scared?” I would ask her. I don’t think she was, and her behavior was purely instinctive: We don’t like not being in control.

Autopilot driving systems are already close to, sometimes even better at save driving than humans, but in order for people at large to risk a robot chauffeuring them around, it’ll take a lot better numbers still — because the feeling that comes with a lack of control is not easily compensated.

When I watch my girlfriend play video games, I sometimes get the same feeling. It’s that “argh,” “wait!,” “no!” that slips from your lips before you can help it, and that simply comes from experience. But no matter how often you press the invisible brake pedal on your side of the car, experience is something we must all gather for ourselves. You can’t pass it on to someone by sitting next to them. You have to sit there, yes, but you still have to let them make their own mistakes — even if some of them will be the exact same ones you made many years ago.

I now understand a little better than I did back then, but I can still only imagine how tough it must be to watch your child fall into a trap you know perfectly well how to avoid. It is much harder to let go than to grasp for control, especially when control feels in reach and would yield good results. Sometimes, however, the best thing you can do for the people you love is to release the door handle. To double down on your faith in them and make a happy face, even if you’re not sure what’ll happen next.

Driving is easy. The real skill is leaning back in the passenger seat and trusting that the person next to you will find the way — and only once you can sincerely do that will you start enjoying the view.