Can self-driving cars

disrupt car culture?

Self-driving cars provide opportunity
to design a people-centric society

Americans love cars, and car culture. 70% of Americans drive to work via car. Vehicle transportation is responsible for approximately 10% of the nation’s GDP. And there are more registered vehicles (254 million) than people who can legally drive them (220 million).

So why is it that Morgan Stanley recently said the car industry is the most disruptable business on earth?

Cars are extremely efficient when in use, but they’re only utilized 4% of the time. This means that vehicles — and the system that supports them — are 96% inefficient.

For the last hundred-some years, car culture has held Americans hostage. Cars are expensive, gas-guzzling killing machines. Cars contribute to thousands of accident-related deaths and expanding waistlines. Sitting in traffic costs us billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Self-driving automobiles will exploit these inefficiencies, and their widespread adoption will bring about systemic, societal changes.

Optimizing vehicular efficiency presents numerous benefits to consumers. There will be fewer cars on the road, meaning you won’t sit in traffic. You will no longer own a car; everyone will pay for their vehicle usage. The cost of each ride will diminish, because you won’t pay for a driver or car insurance. In fact, a study by Columbia University indicated that with full adoption of driverless cars, New York City could reduce its taxi fleet by 1/3. The cost per mile would diminish 800%.

All of these cost savings will allow you to save thousands of dollars per year, money that could help close the income gap between rich and poor. These savings can be spent on healthcare, college tuition, and housing.

Fewer cars on the road could save our highway system from crumbling. The former DOT chair said our infrastructure is on life support. The United States has built one mile of highway for every square mile of US soil. Fewer automobiles will help to sustain the lifetime of roadways, and can reduce the number of lanes per highway. Restoring unused highway lanes to natural habitats will have a positive effect on the environment, and be more aesthetic to vehicular passengers.

This impact will also be seen in cities, which for 50+ years have supported car owners by building massive parking lots. Streets are designed to lessen traffic, not enable biking or walking. Retailers thrive when they have parking spaces. MIT estimates there are 800 million parking spaces in the United States; there are three parking spaces for every car in the US. When combined, every parking spot in the US would cover Puerto Rico with asphalt.

Parking lots are built for maximum use, but often sit empty. Startups such as SpotHero and ParkWhiz have disrupted the parking market, but parking lots will become obsolete once autonomous cars achieve widespread scale. Parking lots in urban centers will be replaced by commercial buildings, residential units, urban parks, and agriculture. Ark Invest predicts that these “freed” parking spaces will produce $1 trillion in economic output, annually.

City Farm in Chicago replaced a small surface parking lot in a once-downtrodden neighborhood. Image from:

Autonomous cars will also transform street parking. We’ve already seen cities transform streets to be more people-centric, such as Times Square in New York, people spots in Chicago, and protected bike lanes in Washington DC. This trend will skyrocket with autonomous cars. Cities can replace street parking with miniature parks, or create microbusinesses such as “food trucks” out of unnecessary parking spaces. But cities must act quickly to take back their streets.

The change in the suburbs will be even more profound. Home garages will be rendered useless, making way for additional storage, “garage businesses,” or even multiunit households. Big Box retail will change, as their heat-producing parking lots will make way for public plazas or local farms. People could simply get dropped off at the store, buy a chicken raised across the street, and get picked up in the store loading zone to go home.

Larger-scale farms can replace Big Box retail parking lots.

These potential opportunities also present huge challenges. There are 4.5 million paid drivers in the United States, 1 million more than there are teachers in K-12 public education. Every one of these drivers is at risk of losing their job. We must design solutions to train drivers in new business sectors, and start now. Perhaps these displaced drivers can farm the land they used to drive, build datacenters to support this new, data-driven fleet of cars, or even become teachers.

The widespread adoption of autonomous cars will happen overnight, and businesses and government — at the national and local level — should take appropriate measures for this massive societal change. If they don’t, cars may still hold us hostage.