See more posts in the Predictions series. 17 December 2013
I have chosen self-driving cars as the first topic in my prediction series for several reasons. First, it is one prediction which I am extremely confident making, it is further one that has not been on anyone’s radar until very recently, and finally it portends large changes to American society and culture. Similar events will take place around the world, and probably even sooner in Scandinavia, Japan, and the Blue Banana.
What are self-driving cars?
Self-driving cars use GPS and computer vision technologies that parse video streams of roads to control the vehicle so that it travels safely and efficiently to its destination without the attention of a human. They can be self-contained, or they can communicate with control centers or even other self-driving cars to optimizing their performance.
Riders: most accidents are caused by human error and are preventible with self-driving cars
Drivers: drivers will be free to use their time for other things.
Children, seniors, and the disabled: those without drivers licenses will no longer need other people to driving them anywhere.
Alcohol and other drug users: intoxication will no longer prevent users from getting home from a party.
Travelers: long-distance roadtrips can be done without breaks for sleeping. Cars will also no longer have to be left at the airport or train station since they can drive themselves back home.
Collective benefits (if everyone adopts self-driving cars)
Slashing of commuter time: self-driving cars will have split-second reaction times, permitting much closer following distances, speeding up clogged traffic, and taking advantage of aerodynamic effects.
Smarter car coordination: self-driving cars will be able to merge into lanes and deal with cross-street traffic much more efficiently, perhaps eliminating the need for stoplights.
Truck and taxi drivers. Massively. Talk about being replaced by technology.
Delivery personnel (mail, pizza, etc).
Public transportation employees.
How it will happen
By 2020, self-driving cars will be fully functional and will have gained the trust of the American consumer through media exposure. Companies such as ZipCar, Uber, Lyft, and SideCar will have added many self-driving cars to their fleets, will have successfully lobbied for the expanded use and acceptance of the technology, and will have acquired an enviable and very happy user base. The taxi industry will probably miss the boat completely, but rental car companies will get some of the pie. By 2030, major cities such as San Francisco and New York will have established laws or policies completely phasing out the use of traditional cars within the subsequent 5 to 10 years. Most other cities will follow suit once the enormous improvements in commuting have been made apparent. By 2050, all metropolitan areas with a population greater than 1 million and the major highways connecting them and probably even some states such as Rhode Island or New Jersey will prohibit the use of traditional cars, and vehicle form factors will have adapted to the fact that there is no driver. By 2070, driving a car will be a novelty pursuit, much like riding a horse is today; it will be considered dangerous, and will also be associated with rednecks and countries with bad infrastructure.
Why it will happen
All of the force of the seatbelt campaigns will be applied to self-driving cars. They will be massively safer. People may think they will miss driving, but they will gladly accept the possibility of doing work, reading, or texting instead. These forces will be overwhelming and none of the displaced workers will have any political clout to oppose. Trucking companies will gleefully dump their employees along with their wages and benefits. If they were to oppose, they will be easily shut down by “think of the averted accidents!” The main opposition will come from people who think they prefer driving to whatever else they could be doing (opposition which will quickly evaporate), from car owners who don’t want to replace their vehicles (opposition which will evaporate in the life expectancy of a car, i.e. 10~15 years), and from car manufactures who will take a hit in their sales due to the rise of carsharing (opposition which will be fierce but “think of the averted accidents!”). Also, self-driving cars will be much more carbon-efficient. Finally, transportation on public roads is one arena in which government is sovereign. It can’t tell you to stop using incandescent lightbulbs (at least not very effectively), but it can tell you exactly what you can and cannot do on the blacktop.
The economic mechanisms
The median car has less than an hour commute per day, and is probably used for only another hour on average. It is thus being used only about 20% of waking time. This is a huge inefficiency. The median car is used by 1 to 2 people at any given time. This is a huge inefficiency. The median following length in traffic is several meters. This is a huge inefficiency. All of these inefficiencies can be successfully addressed by cars which drive themselves to the users when the users need them and do so with the precision and coordination supplied by computers. Car ownership will become a thing of the past. Carsharing (ZipCar), and ridesharing (Uber, Lyft, SideCar) will be in. People will not have to deal with insurance, maintenance, parking, or other burdens. They will instead pay recurring fees for usage of one those services, and they will pay much less overall because of the inefficiencies erased. The convenience will be worth not having a personal vehicle to store things in, and will probably even be worth the loss of privacy due to sharing rides with other costumers to many users.
What it means for society
Self-driving cars will provide the most visible and widespread example of the replacement of human labor by automation and high technology. The victims will be few but they will be visible and remembered when technology starts to devour other industries wholesale. Self-driving cars will spark the much needed conversation of how to apportion resources in a post-scarcity society. And let’s cross our fingers for some good policy changes as a result of that dialogue.