THE future bears down upon us... in the form of a single-decker passenger bus, sedately proceeding along the old Forth Road Bridge. That’s the means whereby self-driving vehicles will introduce themselves to Scottish roads in 2021.

Five driverless buses will run a 14-mile route between Fife and Edinburgh – 10,000 journeys a week across the bridge, 40 passengers a bus. And eventually, one assumes, not a grumpy, taciturn human driver in sight.

But not immediately. The capacity for autonomous vehicles to freak people out, on a number of levels, means that there will doubtless still be a liveried driver in the cab, smiling benignly and hands resting in lap, ready to leap to the controls if the bot goes rogue.

Which it won’t, of course! Even at their current state of development, the number of accidents per million miles for self-driving vehicles in open traffic is much lower than for humans.

As it’s often put, these will be supercomputers on wheels, able to perceive the world in ways even clearer than humans, learning to respond to the road from vast databanks of previous driving moves.

Will they be able to respond to other human eejits behind the wheel? So far, in trials around the world, pretty well – enough to convince regulators in Holyrood and Westminster that robo-buses, at least, are go.

And like the uptake in faxes or internet, you can easily see how the more they’re used, the safer things will be. I’m staring at the traffic in Glasgow’s Dumbarton Road right now – and it’s easy to imagine each driverless car silently chattering to each other, optimising safe distances between them, some greater network collectively assessing and managing the overall traffic flow.

They say in the sector that it’s the car insurance companies, or health authorities, that might crucially tip us into autonomous-vehicle-land. When the staid but safe norms of robot driving become obviously less destructive (of lives and property), it will seem expensive and wasteful to allow fully human control.

As an urban-dwelling lifetime non-driver, who has largely entrusted his mobility to large chunks of municipal engineering in any case, I mildly note the angst of actual fleshbot drivers.

But I’m also asking the famous Neil Postman question, once blown at me in a gust of pungent cigar smoke in his New York academic office: what is the problem to which this technology is the solution?

One might imagine, from the manifest misery of most bus drivers I’ve encountered – and I encounter them a lot – the obvious problem is human alienation. Shouldn’t we regard it as our duty to use automation to liberate our fellow humans from such daily unhappiness?

Or if it’s the case that bus-driving actually is their connection to the community, could they be retained as hosts and assistants to the humans on board, catering to all their various strengths and fragilities?

Both of these scenarios imply that we have governments and regulators who take the long and systemic view on how to reap the full human benefits of automation.

The chirpy pro-Brexit Tory minister who announced these Westminster-funded bus projects, Greg Clark, does not inspire much confidence.

Yet one can even more profitably turn Postman’s question round, and ask: what are the solutions to which this technology is a problem? One of the former might be the combination of walking, cycling and public transport in addressing our growing health and obesity problems.

We have just come out of an auto-centric century, where the presumption of mobility by individual car has shaped cities, energy use, and to some degree our climate crisis. Cities and towns all over the world are taking the opportunity to return their streets and squares to leg-powered transportation – which both reduces emissions and enlivens city-dwellers.

A few months ago I heard a presentation from the architectural consultants Arup, which went so far as to claim that making cities “child-friendly” was the best route to their overall well-being. And transforming pounding roads into pedestrian spaces, where children and parents could splash in the rain (having jumped off at their handy tram stop), was high on the list.

Doesn’t the self-driving car potentially cut against that vision? As is so often the case with “radical innovation”, it’s soaked in the cultural and social assumptions of its point of origin.

Here, specifically, it’s the over-privatised spaces of urban America, where often the closest people get to collective transport is throwing rocks at the Google bus.

There is a mirthless half-hour to be had, surfing the latest visions of atomised culture that seem to accompany talk of self-driving vehicles. At the rosier end of things, readers perch (in an 18th-century manner) with their novels of ideas, as the late-modern maelstrom roars away beyond the perspex bubble.

Over in the murkier depths,

robo-cars become zones for prostitution and drug use. They are also rendered as hackable objects and systems, waiting for angry loners to work our how to misuse them for mayhem (although, since 9/11 and terror trucks on the boulevards, it’s hard to predict what mobilities couldn’t be used as terror weapons these days).

Mercedes’ elitist vision for autonomous cars is probably the likeliest to manifest itself. Their robo-car is a somewhat cramped office for deal-making cosmocrats, no doubt scheming to slash even more workforce rolls through the efficient application of robots and AI... careful with those placarded protestors to your left, Robbie.

There is also a deep political question to ask of autonomous vehicles, one which is already being raised acutely with platforms like Facebook and Google, and will inevitably be raised here. Who watches the watchmen? Or, who exactly should we trust with the operation of these systems, and the data they generate?

With the susceptibility to digital eavesdropping in the west, and the ambitions toward full-spectrum social control in China, I would suggest the trust levels towards self-driving cars will need to be pretty high.

Even if you did treasure the Zen privacy of your car-zone, and could see the robot age maintaining that, how do you know that no-one (or nothing) else is listening in to your musings?

Leading indy politicians like Ivan McKee and Humza Yousaf have been loud advocates of Scotland as a test-bed for this new era. Earlier this year in these pages, McKee noted that the Scottish Government “needs to be ahead of the curve here, and not running to catch up: assessing legislative and regulatory needs and being proactive in working with technology companies.

“And as with so much of this revolution”, continued McKee, “the earlier these issues are assessed and plans put in place the better. Society at large needs to be a beneficiary of automation and not a victim.”

Agreed. And the banality of a bus service to Fife might well be the most reassuring of entry points. But let’s keep remembering the problems to which the latest algorithmic wonder is an actual solution.