2037— Your son finishes his cereal and you pat him on the head. Ready for daycare, champ? He looks up and smiles broadly. Are you coming with me, Daddy? You shake your head and his smile falters. Then his face brightens. …Then, can I drive myself? The words have barely left your mouth before he cheers and jumps up, grabbing his backpack and running towards the driveway.
The car is waiting, sparkling with beads of morning dew. Let’s see how well you remember! You help him onto the passenger couch and he nods determinedly. Car, he orders, take me to Honeycreek Daycare Center! The car bleeps in approval, then announces travel duration, traffic conditions, and three parent-approved edutainment offerings. You give a round of applause and step back, waving farewell as the car door slides shut. You keep waving as the car pulls out of the driveway, but your son is already engrossed in a cartoon.
Self-driving cars may sound like science fiction, but the technology is already on its way. These are early days, but the prevalence of cheap computers, sensors and components mean we can expect car companies to make rapid progress.
Ultimately, self-driving cars will usher in social and cultural changes rivaling those introduced by the Internet.
Not convinced? Let’s start with a few safe assumptions.
First, self-driving cars will be safer than human drivers. Take AEB (Autonomous Emergency Braking), which scans the road ahead and primes or activates the brakes when Little Timmy chases his ball in front of the car. A shocking study by the European Commission found that cars with AEB were involved in 27% fewer traffic accidents than cars relying on human reflexes. As autonomous vehicle technology advances, even more impressive safety gains are inevitable. It makes sense that computer-driven cars would be safer: radar/lidar does not blink, get sleepy, or suddenly have a contact lens pop out, and algorithms don’t get drunk, distracted, or feel that irrational burst of anger that sometimes make us drive like assholes.
Second, autonomous vehicular technology will be cheap and ubiquitous. Limited autonomous features are already being introduced, with makers like Nissan, Volvo, Mercedes Benz and Ford showing off self-braking, self-parking and automatic lane-centering in new models. Looking ahead, Nissan has announced plans to sell affordable, fully self-driven vehicles by 2020, a not-unrealistic target considering all the necessary technology already exists. Once self-driving capabilities are affordable, a combination of consumer demand and government pressure will make the tech widespread: ultimately, it will become the standard for every vehicle. Remember the AEB safety study mentioned above? Shortly afterwards, the European car safety agency announced that only cars using that technology would be eligible for a 5-star safety rating, making AEB effectively mandatory.
Third: culture will follow technology, and form will follow function. Human behavior and society will respond quickly to the increased freedom afforded by self-driving cars. The morning commute will lose much of its horror, thus reducing pressure for workers to buy homes close to the city center. Drinking and driving will become far less abhorrent. Economies will shudder as entire careers go extinct (sorry taxi drivers, long-haul truckers, chauffeurs and pizza delivery boys!) and companies struggle to adapt to a world in which transportation is fully automated. On the design front, as the risk of an automobile crash declines dramatically, the structural design of vehicles will be completely transformed. Automobile designers will rethink everything from the ground up, responding to enormous road safety gains and consumer demands.
To get an idea of how comprehensive these changes could be, consider the car as we know it today:
From the outside, we see a rigid metal shell, four wheels, safety lights and bumpers. Peering inside, we see a cockpit-like enclosure with front-facing seats, a wheel, gearshift, and a galaxy of knobs, buttons and dials. Each feature is painstakingly designed to support the vehicle’s primary purpose: to transport delicate, irreplaceable items from one place to another, at very high speeds and in very unpredictable conditions.
You sit down, strap yourself in, and focus on not becoming one of ~35,000 Americans killed in automobile accidents each year.
Now, consider the car of the future:
Scrap the wheel and pedals— just sit down and tell the car where you want to go. Lose the dials, buttons and knobs: the car will tell you when it’s running low on gas, and you’ll control in-car entertainment by voice. Oh, and let’s replace those forward-facing seats with comfortable couches.
Seem unbelievable? Not so much as the idea that humans will spend hours staring dully at the road ahead while a hyper-safe computer system effortlessly drives them to their destination.
From here, the changes snowball. You’ve already got a couch and some electronics: wouldn’t a beer and a few tacos hit the spot? Consumers will clamor for new features, and companies will respond accordingly: mini-fridges and microwaves will thus become common fixtures in the car of the future. And really, once you can sleep, eat and drink in your car, doesn’t that expensive apartment seem just a little bit redundant? To go fully nomad, all you’d need is a place to shower and charge your car fuel cells. Imagine mobile apartments (carpartments?) the size of a large van, clustered around communal pay-showers and gas/charge stations. This isn’t a run-down trailer park: this is the trendiest living arrangement for young singles and urban professionals on the move.
The cumulative effects of ubiquitous, advanced self-driving cars will permeate every aspect of human society, ultimately creating an impact equal to that of the Internet itself.
Today’s generation sees fixed telephone landlines as somewhat antiquated; tomorrow’s could feel the same about fixed, stationary living abodes. The physical world will increasingly resemble the Internet, with populations living in floating, decentralized nodes moving along a network of highways, backroads and side streets. Cities and states will struggle to tax mobile, address-less digital nomads, while law enforcement will flail as drug dealers peddle their wares via automated, self-driving delivery cars. Amazon’s dream of nationwide same-day delivery could become a reality as a fleet of self-driving shipping vehicles glide back and forth across America, day and night.
As with any technology, there are unavoidable downsides. Many will bemoan the loss of driving for its own pleasure, particularly if manual driving becomes legally restricted. Others will have privacy concerns, fearing that using Internet-connected vehicles will make their physical movements increasingly susceptible to government surveillance. There will also be insurance hurdles to clear; when a self-driving car has an accident, who is at fault?
If you prioritize independence, control and self-reliance, you may come to curse this emerging technology. If you value comfort, convenience and ease-of-use, you may embrace it. How you and other consumers respond over the long-term may prove the most unpredictable and critical factor in the self-driving car revolution.