This is How the Next Decade of Traffic Will Look

There’s no shortage of predictions as to when autonomous cars will hit the market. Trouble is, that’s not really a thing.

Autonomy isn’t a feature. We already have cars with low levels of autonomy, and as the technology permeates the traffic grid, we’ll start to see changes not just in the vehicles we drive, but in our own culture. Autonomy is a path, not a milestone.

I’m going to take you down that path; the next ten years, to be exact. To get started, you’ll want to know a bit about how this tech will grow and how the market may react. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a system of “autonomy levels” from 0–4 which, frankly, are a bit silly. And so, I’ve devised a more reliable projection using colored dots… I promise it’s not an insult to your intelligence.

Brick Car: this is a conventional car — that is to say, it’s a car that will not interfere if you try to drive it into a lake. Like an iPhone without carrier service, it is effectively a fancy hunk of metal… hence the Brick moniker. It has no driver assistance systems (ADAS), or if it does, the systems are isolated and lack context. Most vehicles sold up to today sit in this category, which the NHTSA would label as Level 0, or in advanced cases, Level 1.

Connected Car: this is a car with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, as well as a package of ADAS functions such as brake assist + adaptive cruise + self-park, granting the car sporadic self-driving capabilities. The V2V tech allows the car to communicate its position and other useful information to nearby vehicles and any infrastructure that may be designed to listen.

There are a handful of luxury cars on the market today in this category, which the NHTSA would label roughly as Level 2.

Bubble Car: this is a car with substantial autonomous capabilities; an all-encompassing package of ADAS functions that are in communication with each other and managed by software with a degree of skill that leaves nothing up to the driver. The key distinction between a Bubble car and an Autonomous car is primarily that the former is still designed for the traditional car market, to be owned and operated by a private consumer who is not yet ready to relinquish driving to a computer.

The term Bubble here refers to the notion that the driver is safe from himself: regardless of how he may attempt to pilot the vehicle, the management software will always take control in order to prevent a collision. As of today, there are no cars on the market in this category… one that the NHTSA would label as a high 3 or low 4.

Autonomous Car: this is a vehicle that is capable of driving itself at all times, within any scenario for which it is licensed to operate — in fact, a human passenger is probably not able to interfere. At this point the vehicle may no longer resemble a car, nor will it be owned or operated by an individual consumer.

These are on-demand vehicles of varying shapes and applications, which can be designed to fit the particular needs of the scenarios they operate in. The NHTSA would label these as Level 4.

Alrighty, let’s take a stroll through the future.

2016 — 2017

Beyond the handful of semi-autonomous vehicle experiments that may creep into a few ambitious cities, what you’re looking at here is the present state of traffic. A light peppering of Connected Cars can and will be seen as they hit the market, primarily through luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac.

In short, there’s nothing to see here. And that’s what will make the next few images such a wake-up call.

2018 — 2019

Notice anything? Probably not. But there are several new pieces on the board — namely a few of the first Bubble Cars, which are interesting because their autonomous capabilities can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. They won’t all boast the same degree of artificial intelligence, but they’ll all be more capable than Connected Cars.

The early ones you see here may only be able to handle 99% of driving situations effectively — the key is that, because Joe consumer still thinks of it as his car and his responsibility, the manufacturer is happy to keep the onus on him. Thus, the car industry is free to aggressively pursue this new area of the market while keeping their hands clean and navigating the waters of legislation, insurance, and so forth.

Don’t overlook the fact that we’ve just gone from having two levels of cars on the road to three in the span of 24 months. For the past 75 years, we were making do with one level.

To this point, nothing about autonomous technology has demonstrated an impact on the urban landscape. That will change very soon.

What’s worth noting is that the image here shows 10% of vehicles having the ability to communicate with one another and actively avoid collisions without human intervention. In theory, this is where insurance companies will have to start acknowledging the chasm between Brick Cars and the vastly safer, software-managed vehicles.

So, unless State Farm decides to pull a Goldman Sachs and simply fabricate its premiums to pretend the sky isn’t falling, every new purple dot you see from here on out will be making car insurance more and more expensive for the red dots.

In fact, what the insurance industry does may not even matter, as aggressive market players with money to burn may just up and decide to self-insure their Bubble Cars at zero cost to the consumer.

2020 — 2021

Okay. No more playing around.

First things first: remember when I said it was notable to see three levels of cars sharing the road? Well, it’s two years later, and now we have four. Four different grades of vehicles, made even more complex by the fact that the Autonomous Cars you see here are probably not going to be cars at all:

  • The University (U) has adopted a small fleet of Autonomous Shuttles, hauling students across campus at an octogenarian-friendly 15mph which makes the vehicles safe enough to function on sidewalks and walking paths, easily mingling with foot and bike traffic.
  • The Low-Income Housing Projects (L) have received an Autonomous Bus as one of the city’s transit innovation experiments. These people have more to gain than to lose, which makes them good guinea pigs — an emerging technology trend that should have a drastic impact on civil rights. The meek shall inherit the tech, you could say.
  • The Distribution Warehouse (D) — which might be a local company or might be an Amazon/Walmart-esque outpost — is employing Autonomous Vans to run deliveries around town and seamlessly integrate with distribution logistics. If it’s not Amazon testing its own fleet, it’s Google or Ford subsidizing the distributor’s operation in order to gain a foothold in the supply chain of goods and services. Think of it as a much more mature version of what Uber is trying to do today with deliveries.

Meanwhile, more rich folks are buying Bubble Cars. Local governments and tech companies are experimenting with taxi and ride-share programs using Connected Cars. Amidst all of that, autonomous technology is getting better and price points are going down. Owning a Brick Car is starting to become an embarrassing notion on several levels: the obsolescence, the insurance premiums, the comparably blatant traffic infractions that make you a bigger target for the police and paint you as a bull in a china shop to everyone else.

2022 — 2023

Cars are starting to disappear from this grid. Let’s find out why.

Brick Cars are now the minority, at least in urban centers. If you’re driving one of these relics in 2023, you probably have a story behind it. More importantly, the people who aren’t buying the latest and greatest Bubble Cars (they’re probably not buying Connected Cars anymore, because that’s ancient technology from way back in 2017) are just getting rid of their vehicles altogether. How come?

  1. The connectivity benefits of the purple and blue dots present citizens with new options for ride-sharing and autonomous mass transit. The people who don’t need a car every day are less attached to the investment, and are therefore quicker to recognize that the outdated model of vehicle ownership is rapidly becoming extinct. Remember that we’re several years into the future here, so other urban initiatives like bike shares and trolleys will present even more options.
  2. The prohibitive cost of owning a Brick Car will force lower-income citizens out of the market, and any frugal consumer will follow. That sounds scary until you remember the prior point — at a fraction of traditional costs, these people will have just as much access to transit, if not more. It’s just that they no longer have the burden of a personal vehicle to maintain.
  3. Technological unemployment is ramping up. The Distribution Warehouse doesn’t need as many employees now that it has autonomous logistics. The folks who trekked down the highway every day are slowly accepting telecommute and flex schedule jobs, which sound nice, but are really just the first step towards the door.

2024 — 2025

Some from the more well-to-do crowd in the Residential Areas (R) and Business Districts (B) have finally stopped clinging for dear life to their precious cars, and are opening up to the idea of shared/mass transit using Autonomous Vehicles. Many of these vehicles will be provided by the government or in partnership with a corporation who has a vested interest in owning 21st century transportation, which is really about owning vital integration points with consumers’ lifestyles.

At this point, market competition is so hot that citizens may be seeing preposterously low prices for their on-demand trips — anyone with deep pockets (Google, Apple) or a fortune to lose (GM, Ford) will happily sell you a rock-bottom car ride in exchange for some personal data and captured market share.

Businesses can start gathering data on their employees’ travel patterns and associated costs, which can help them further negotiate telecommute and flex schedule options to increase productivity and profitability, which will in turn drive technological unemployment further.

The price drop, insurance savings, and overall awesomeness of a Bubble Car will make it a must-have if you’ve got the means and the narcissism. What were those things they made a few years ago? “Connected Cars?” Like, why buy a car you’d have to drive all the time? Old people are stupid.

From a safety perspective, we’ve pretty much got it licked. It’s nearly impossible to get into a typical car accident by now. We’re all riding around in protective bubbles — those of us who aren’t will look like drunk drivers, ostracized for our gluttonous and dangerous behavior. Even if you’re rich enough to afford operating a Brick Car, the connectivity and freedom everyone else enjoys will make you look poor. The conventional car is gone.

If your children aren’t old enough to get their driver’s licenses by 2025, they’ll never have to.

What happens after 2025? Well, that’s up to us.

It doesn’t take much to get your city to this point. Moving beyond it means making decisions about culture, ethics, and perhaps the meaning of life. That’s not something the technology can do for us out of the box.

Bubble Cars 4Ever: By 2025, the most widespread vehicle will be the Bubble Car. It’s an unabashedly selfish and wasteful scene: imagine a kids’ party at a bowling alley where all the gutters are covered with bumpers. Every throw is a strike! Nothing can go wrong! Gold stars for everyone!

Now imagine attending that party twice a day, every day, with a bunch of adults who most certainly have better things to do than throw a bowling ball. That’s what Bubble Car traffic is. It’s the entire commuting population saying, “look at me, I’m steering my very own car!” while the autonomous software ignores any of your driving inputs that would threaten other people. It’s vestigial behavior.

The problem is, there are some very powerful organizations who would like to see us keep doing this. The car industry, for one. From the 2016 image to the 2025 image, I dropped the number of vehicles by 42%. Research has shown that we may one day need less than 25%, or even 15%, of our current volume. That spells the end of the car industry — the companies who claimed during the bailout that their failure would mean America’s failure.

The insurance industry, too. What is the point of car insurance if you don’t crash? It’s another behemoth business who needs you behind that wheel, even if you’re taking a nap. There’s so much that autonomous transportation could do for society, but to achieve it we need to let our love of car ownership die.

All Hail Lord Google: Our governments aren’t known for their skill in managing infrastructure or information. Autonomous vehicles don’t just bring a new transportation form to the grid — they are the grid. The sheer volume of information these vehicles will process (and that will flow through the servers of the companies managing the operations) makes them a defacto government in and of themselves.

Lump in all the elements of this tech that we haven’t covered in this article (interior and exterior cameras that could act as a new tier of law enforcement, microfees charging small but frequent penalties to citizens for wasteful or inefficient behavior), and you’ve got the makings of an entirely new form of government. Perhaps even a new philosophical framework that surpasses the dusty logic of our Constitution. What is a government, in the age of omniscience?

To Sprawl Or Not To Sprawl: The images I showcased here depict an urban center, or a dense suburban area. But we can expand autonomous transportation out as far as we want, and with it, our families and our homes and our lives. Is that what we want? Would we be better off pricing these things out so that it becomes prohibitive to live outside the city center? Or should we leverage the fluidity of such a transportation model to expand and contract our geographic footprint as we see fit?

Where does urban planning fit into this? None of the images above address the opportunities available to cities once 25% of its land is freed from parking lot hell, and much of the paved world becomes pedestrian-friendly. Maybe there’s more space in these cities than we can imagine.

I’m Retired. We’re All Retired: The #1 job for a man in the U.S. is to be a driver of something. Those jobs are over. Autonomous vehicles will put an end to millions of jobs, and that’s just one panel of the rich tapestry that is technological unemployment at the hands of artificial intelligence.

We’re getting rid of work, and that should mean that resources will flow like water, within reason. But we’re human, and we find ways to be wasteful, to be greedy, to be competitive. Will we screw this up? Is it too difficult for us to debate ideas like “jobs” and “unemployment” and “guaranteed income” without scrambling to our pathetic political platforms in childish fits of confusion? Can we overcome our instinctive fear of change? Can we evolve?

What’s the point?

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