Things that will Change with Self-driving Cars

Every morning I wake up and drive an hour to work. Every evening I leave the office and drive an hour back home. The ten+ hours a week I spend in the car has given me a lot of time to think about the state of automobile related travel and how the advent of autonomous, or self-driving cars will change our reality. Here are a few of the interesting ways I think self-driving cars will impact the world in the short and long-term.


The Design of Roads

Roads are designed for humans; visual creatures who need physical cues to make decisions and navigate. Currently, autonomous vehicles leverage a lot of the same cues. Their sensors detect road cones and railroad crossing signs. They also read the painted lane lines in order to stay in the right place. Today, this approach makes sense. It’s not feasible to change our entire infrastructure for an experimental technology. The only way to catalyze adoption of self-driving cars is to leverage the past. But in the future, when self-driving cars have all but replaced human drivers, the need for the past will fade away.

The autonomous “drivers” of the future won’t be limited to our few, feeble human senses. They will possess an unlimited array of sensing paradigms. They will be able to interface with the environment in ways that are impossible for us. Because of this, roads will become as smart and communicative as the cars that drive on them. Lane lines, traffic lights, reflectors, speed bumps, road cones and signage of all kinds will become relics of a bi-gone age. Instead of traffic cones, construction crews may deploy infrared nets around their work zones, creating an invisible perimeter that only cars can see.

Traffic circles and speed bumps will be obsolete. Even things like concrete retaining walls will disappear as the risk of distracted drivers drifting across lanes drops to zero. Similarly, rumble strips, designed to alert drivers that they have left their lane, will become irrelevant.

As the infrastructure catches up, the design of intersections will also change. Traffic lights will be replaced by smart sensors that act as an interconnected web of air traffic controllers, maintaining a continuous flow of cars.

Given the nature of our environment, it seems reasonable that self-driving cars will always have some “visual” component to their sensing, but this will be augmented in myriad ways as the technology matures and the rest of world becomes connected. Having said that, I do think that some of the visual cues we use on roads today may remain on local streets, where pedestrians, bikers and the like still travel. But places built only for cars, like highways, will see significant change.


Our Relationship with Parking

When cars no longer need us to drive them, they no longer need to stay close by.

Taking a trip? Your car will drive you to the airport, drop you off, and drive itself back home to be safely parked in your driveway until you return. At which time it will come pick you up. No more long-term parking.

Just making a quick stop to grab some milk at the grocery store? Your car will drop you off and circle the block until you are done.

Parking decks and parking lots will still exist but will no longer need to be located directly next to high traffic areas. Designated parking zones will be built a few miles outside of major hubs and city centers. Cars will drop off their passengers and head to the parking zone until they are needed again. Parking lots, parking decks and parking meters will all but disappear from city centers. Some major cities will go as far as to eliminate all vehicle traffic and redesign major centers to facilitate walking and other means of short-range transportation, as cars deliver their passengers to specified drop off points and then head back home or off to park.


Driving as Recreation

Doc: In the future, we don’t need horses. We have motorized carriages called “automobiles.”
Cowboy: If everybody’s got one of these auto-whats-its, does anybody walk or run any more?
Doc: Of course we run, but for recreation. Fun.
Cowboy: Run for fun? What the hell kinda fun is that?!
- Back to the Future Part III

There is something fundamentally exhilarating about driving a car. It captivates and excites us. The speed, the control, the power. These are all things that we will be reticent to give up.

When we no longer drive on a daily basis, our desire to drive will create a billion dollar industry around recreational driving. People will pay to learn to drive non-autonomous cars on closed circuit tracks. Like a boat at a marina, people will still own non-autonomous cars and keep them at the course. Driving will cease to be done for utility and will become purely about the fun.

Tangentially, I think self-driving cars will also create an increased interest in auto-racing of all kinds. When we stop driving, over time the act of driving will become increasingly exotic and intriguing. Plus the growth of recreational driving will create a surge of racing talent, as kids enroll in driving summer camps and youth leagues, where they are actually trained to drive, as opposed to today, where we get some basic guidance and then are handed a license and turned loose on the street. When driving becomes primarily a sport, racing will become a bigger phenomenon than it is today.


Our Relationship with Technology

Technology companies have been pushing for us to talk to our devices for years. Siri, Cortana, Google Now, Amazon Echo, Google Glass, Xbox Kinect, Fire TV Voice Search, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, so far, few of these attempts have sparked the kind of widespread adoption most companies hoped for. People do try it. Business Insider reports that 98% of iPhone users have tried Siri, but very few actually use the feature frequently. Some of this is driven by usability issues inherent in a technology that is in it’s infancy. Things like inconsistent and spotty natural speech recognition, and lack of affordances for commands and available interactions. But the biggest problem, as BI and others have pointed out, is that people feel awkward talking to their phones, or their glasses or a magic assistant in the corner of the room.

Autonomous cars will break down the wall of awkwardness that stands between us and a life of fulfilling, deep conversations with our electronics.

We already talk to our cars. We name them. We plead with them. We cry to them. We sing to them in a way we would never sing to another human being. I can’t think of another physical object that has been more anthropomorphized than automobiles.

They are already designed to have faces, and personalities.

When cars go all “Kitt” on us it’s going to feel natural, even expected.

Once we start routinely talking to our cars the sky is limit. Just like little kids today who try to touch every screen they see, we’ll be trying to talk to everything.


Government Revenue

Robots don’t commit moving violations.

When cars drive themselves, an entire revenue stream for local and state governments goes dry. Ticket related fines, parking fees, drivers license fees, fees from DUIs and DWIs, they all go away. Red light cams and speed cams become a short-lived technological blip. Among other possible systemic effects, this could result in the loss of a lot of law enforcement jobs. Or it could just mean that police will focus more time on enforcing other laws, like cracking down on all the jaywalkers that are impeding self-driving cars.

The drop in revenue means we can expect to see increased vehicle registration related fees and taxes, as well as an increase in things like road use taxes to generate revenue for maintaining the infrastructure. Of course we could also see a lot more privatization of road infrastructure as well, especially as the infrastructure becomes more tech heavy.


Access to Transportation

Our world is built around automobiles. To not have one, or to not be able to operate one is a fundamental barrier to social mobility and is one of the defining lines between the social classes. Without the financial or physical means to own or drive a car, the majority of the world, and it’s opportunities, are simply out of reach. While we have the technology to travel anywhere around the globe in a matter of hours, huge portions of the population are confined to the places they can walk, or where the bus stops.

Our public transit systems are completely inadequate to serve the needs of this population. It’s one of the significant travesties of our capitalist age. I believe the self-driving car will change this and it could be one of it’s most profound impacts.

Autonomous cars will completely change the way we think about public transportation.

At its most basic, with no human drivers, public transit service will be non-stop and accessible at all hours. But autonomous vehicles also have the potential to solve one of the biggest failings of our current public transit paradigm: the last mile.

Defined “lines” limit the number of places where a bus or train will stop, which means getting to many destinations requires multiple line changes and ultimately walking, sometimes blocks. In the future, systems will still leverage, autonomous, mass transit, but it will now be accompanied by a network of micro-transit systems that will blanket the landscape. These micro systems will break the “line” paradigm and make almost any point directly accessible.

But it won’t just be a bunch of for profit Uber clones. Governments and non-profits will develop and maintain intricate public systems. Where the bus lines end, a spider web of public, individual transports will move people the last mile in a way that a one size fits all mass transit system could never accomplish, creating new opportunities for the elderly, the poor and disenfranchised, and people with disabilities.


These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Self-driving cars are an amazing technology space to think about because the impacts could be so vast and far reaching. This list could go on and on. The points above don’t even touch on the things that will happen when our time in the car is freed up from driving. It’s a vast, untapped reserve of potential — as I alluded to in my last story.

Regardless of how long these things take, and what ultimately transpires, the transition to self-driving cars is going to be a hell of a show to watch.