by Alex Davies

The “great man” theory holds that history is largely made by heroes—big, brawny, brainy dudes (always dudes) who reshape the future with brute force and brilliance. WIRED alum Alex Davies’ new book refutes that outdated theory. In Driven, Davies digs into the history of autonomous vehicles and the goofy, spirited cast of characters (still mostly dudes) who are working to shepherd the tech into existence. As Davies reveals, teamwork makes the dream work. Until it doesn’t. Then the lawsuits—and in one engineer’s case, handcuffs—fly.

Eventually, robot cars might reshape the way modern life works. Autonomous vehicles could be a $7 trillion business by 2050; today, multibillion-dollar companies like Alphabet, General Motors, Ford, and Tesla race to hammer out the kinks. But back at the opening of the century, AVs were an academic hobbyhorse. Then an obscure clause in a 2001 funding bill poured government money into developing robot tech. Just a few years later, Darpa held a literal robot race across the Mojave Desert. The kooky entrants are the same engineers banking millions at the world’s largest AV companies today. For many, the money was a nice incentive. But as one roboticist tells Davies, most are driven by the classic maker ethos: “I sought something that would dent the world, that I could do with my own hands, that would happen in my time.”

To paraphrase another visionary, the course of true engineering never did run smooth. Davies’ sharp narrative chronicles the personality clashes, philosophical divergences, funding crunches, and, in a shocking number of cases, troublesome wild creatures that get in robotics’ way. (A tip: When racing a robot across the desert, keep an eye out for the native tortoises, which will pee on you if you try to move them.) This is a book for anyone who’s sick of the hero narrative, and who wants to learn about how the business of building world-shaking robots truly creaks along.—Aarian Marshall