The Unintended Ways Self-Driving Cars Will Change Our World

Driverless tech as a moral imperative for future generations.

October 31, 2016 • 9 minutes read

Six years ago, Google raised a lot of eyebrows when it announced it was developing a self-driving car. At the time, very few people took the technology seriously. However, things have been gearing up, and now self-driving cars are about to be part of our everyday life. Just last August, Uber rolled out its first batch of 100 driverless taxi-cars in Pittsburgh.

I believe this is one of the most transformative upcoming technologies for our society. In this article, we’ll explore the unintended ways these cars will impact your everyday life, from potentially losing your right to drive to losing your job altogether, and why all of this is actually a great thing.

Driving Could Become Illegal

Let’s put it bluntly: humans are shitty drivers. The whole idea of giving every adult the right to drive a two-ton death machine is pretty dumb. Around the world, cars kill over 1.3 million people every year. In America alone, there’s hasn’t been a year since WW2 where car crashes didn’t kill over 30 000 people.

And over 94% of those are caused by human error.

On the other hand, computers are much better drivers. For starters, they don’t text, get drunk or distracted while driving. Furthermore, they are equipped with a slew of sensors that give them superhuman abilities: 360° radars, lasers, cameras, networked maps, and the brainpower to make light speed decisions. A recent study estimates that mass-adoption of self-driving cars could reduce over 90% of traffic accidents, saving thousands of lives in the process. So far, the facts seem to back up the research. Since their inception, Google self-driving cars have driven almost 2 million miles, which is about three times what the average American will drive in his lifetime, and have only been involved in one accident where the computer was at fault.

What happens when self-driving cars become mainstream, and the authorities realize how overwhelmingly better at driving they are? They outlaw driving. Elon Musk made a lot of people angry when he stated that he believes this might eventually happen. What his detractor don’t understand is that their angry opinions are pointless. When seat belts and air bags first came out, nobody wanted them either. Yet, the fact that these are now in every car shows how little personal opinion matters when it comes to public safety. In the end, safety is about money, and car crashes cost a ton of it. In the US, it’s about $871 billion/year. Considering that mass adoption of self-driving cars could cut down about $190 billion in material damage alone, it is reasonable to believe they could be enforced in the future.

The Technology Will Lead to Massive Public Surveillance

Do a YouTube search for “Russian dash cam crashes,” and you’ll find thousands of videos showing insane car accidents and close calls.

Russian dash cam videos have become an Internet running gag.

This doesn’t mean Russian roads are more dangerous than elsewhere. In short, it is because the corrupted law enforcement and legal system in Russia made it a necessity for drivers to get a dash cam to protect their rights. It turns out, recording everything at all time put the daily mayhem of driving in the spotlight whereas it was previously ignored

In a similar fashion, the proliferation of camera-enabled smartphones has shed light on another important issue: police brutality. Recently, videos capturing police violence brought widespread media attention to this previously ignored phenomenon, leading to nationwide protests and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. But ultimately, the violence isn’t new; it’s the cameras that are. While black communities have been decrying this problem for decades, we waited until cameras pushed the violence in our faces before starting a public discussion.

Self-driving cars are like cameras on steroids. To drive, they need to constantly record and make sense of the world around them. Given how the proliferation of cameras has changed our lives so far, it is interesting to consider what will happen when every car on the street is recording everything at all time.

On the one hand, the staggering amount of information collected could massively improve public safety. Self-driving cars will be able to identify roadblocks, accidents or potential dangers and immediately contact the right service. Furthermore, crime prevention software could algorithmically detect assaults as they unfold and warn the authorities. On the other hand, this constant surveillance would bring us closer to an Orwellian society. For instance, connected self-driving cars will track our location at all time. Paired with face-recognition technology, a network of self-driving cars could identify and track any pedestrian in sight. In the aftermath of Snowden’s revelation, the proliferation of self-driving cars will likely reignite the debate on safety and privacy.

Owning a Car Will be a Foreign Concept to your Kids

As of writing this article, nearly every tech giant, including Google, Apple, Baidu and Uber, is building its version of a self-driving car. The prevailing business model these companies are going for seems to be an autonomous ride-sharing service. Think: Uber without the human driver. Just make a request on your smartphone, and one of the company’s self-driving cars will come pick you up, bring you to your destination, drop you and then ride away to serve another customer.

Beyond being incredibly convenient, the main advantage of such a service is its reduced cost. This is why most of these companies are building electric self-driving cars. By striking both the human salary and the gasoline off the equation, the cost of a car ride could drop as low as $.35 per mile, which is cheaper than public transportation right now. In the end, you get all the benefits of owning a car, pay less, and you never have to worry about maintenance or finding a parking spot. In a future where self-driving cars are so cheap and convenient, the idea of owning a car will be silly.

This will be a huge cultural change for western societies, where car ownership has long been a status symbol and a rite of passage into adulthood.

However, considering that the car is likely the world’s most underutilized asset, this is a welcome change. In fact, the average owner uses his car only 4% of the time, which is an astonishing waste considering the average cost of a car is around $9000/year per car. Ultimately, driverless technology will let us achieve improved efficiency in transportation while eliminating up to 90% of the cars from the road. For a country like the United-States, research estimates that it could amount to a whopping 240 million cars. Which brings us to the next point:

Traffic Will Be Virtually Nonexistent

Beyond the obvious benefit for the environment, having fewer cars on the road is the first step towards eliminating traffic. It turns out self-driving cars could remove traffic entirely. To understand how this is possible, we first need to understand how traffic works.

In 2008, a team of researchers did an experiment demonstrating how traffic can appear from seemingly nowhere. They put 22 vehicles on a 750 feet long single-lane circuit and directed everyone to drive at about 30 mph. Within a short time, the cars were jammed.

This phenomenon is called a traffic shockwave. It appears when someone drives slower than the average, causing every driver behind to break slightly harder than needed. The delay between every car breaking and accelerating starts a chain reaction that ends up creating a traffic jam out of seemingly nowhere.

Had the same experiment been done with self-driving cars, there would have been no jam. That’s because computers have no problem maintaining a perfectly constant speed. In fact, computers are much better at many things when it comes to driving.

A world without terrible drivers is a world without human drivers.

This cleverly edited video shows a myriad of cars impossibly crossing each other at an intersection. A feat like this would be unthinkable for human drivers. But in a system where cars can communicate with each other at the speed of light, an overarching traffic management system could make this a reality, reducing traffic to its optimal minimum.

Such a system would also render traffic lights obsolete. This is another welcome change considering that traffic lights are a 150 year old technology whose sole purpose is to help human drivers roughly coordinate with each other. Getting rid of them will also help cut down traffic.

The environmental benefits of reducing traffic are huge. Currently, American commuters collectively waste 5.5 billion hours per year in traffic, releasing into the atmosphere an unnecessary 56 billion pounds of CO2 and wasting about $124 billion in the process. The sheer magnitude of waste caused by traffic is another argument for eventually enforcing self-driving cars.

Driverless Cars Will Wipe Out Millions Of Jobs…

Here’s a picture of a dumbfounded police officer who pulled over a Google car for driving too slow.

The car ultimately wasn’t issued a ticket.

This picture a great metaphor for our automated future. In a world without any drivers, parking spots, and traffic lights, there is not a lot of work left for street police. While the thought of never getting a speeding ticket again sounds amazing, it won’t be so great for the people who will lose their job. And this goes beyond police. Think: taxi, bus and truck drivers.

Money is a big factor of change in our society. It turns out, self-driving cars don’t need money. They can also work 24/7 without any breaks. When employing them, you don’t need to worry about hiring, managing or giving benefits either. All of this means huge savings for transportation businesses, and you can bet they will seek those.

Scott Santers perfectly illustrated how disruptive of a change this will be with the following map:

Source: NPR

As you can see, driving is one of the most popular jobs in the US. With an average salary of about $40,000 per year, it’s also one of the few remaining careers that can provide a good middle-class income without requiring a degree. In the US, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers, in addition to the 665,000 bus drivers, 240,000 taxi drivers, and the many Uber and Lyft drivers. All those jobs will ultimately be replaced by self-driving cars.

…And Transform The Economy As We Know It

Self-driving cars are a part of a much broader phenomenon called automation, where advances in robotics and artificial intelligence slowly replace humans in the workplace. The transportation industry is the first victim, but there are many more to come. In fact, Oxford researchers estimate that automation is expected to wipe out about half of US jobs within the next two decades.

Automation itself isn’t bad. It’s a process that has been going on for centuries. History is filled with jobs that disappeared because of technology. How many of these would you want to bring back? Future generations will think of human drivers the same way as we now think of town criers or elevator operators.

Technology is bringing us to a world where there will be fewer jobs than there are people. While this might seem scary at first, in a sense, this is what society has always wanted for itself. This is why we build things in the first place. In a sense, driverless technology is the Transcontinental Railroad or Interstate Highway project of our time. It is a generation of entrepreneurs and engineers working together to make life easier for future generations.

Omaha — San Francisco in less than 4 days!

Historically, work has always been about solving problems, but somewhere along the way we confused it for a way to keep ourselves busy. I believe this is fundamentally wrong. I believe in human potential, and I believe it is first by freeing ourselves from the menial, automatable jobs that we can ultimately break free and reach a higher level of self-actualization as a society.

Today, self-driving cars still face major challenges. They have yet to function in extreme weather, are prone to hacking, face ethical dilemmas, and they follow the laws so precisely that human drivers are currently more likely to crash into them. However, I believe the technology’s benefits far outweigh its challenges and potential downsides. Ultimately, if the technology can deliver even one-tenth of what it promises, be it saved lives, lower cost or reduced pollution, I believe we have a moral obligation to push it forward.

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This text was also published as a slideshow on Tech Crunch on 11/07/2016.

Huge thanks to Bobby A. Aube, Karen O’Dell, François Lanthier N., Yansou Girard and Hugo Savoie for the feedback.

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