The driverless car has long been the stuff of dreams, but it is now becoming a reality. It’s going to be a big change, and it’s likely the leading edge of a wider movement of robots automating just about every aspect of our lives. Google has a tiny, adorable prototype that has got a lot of coverage, they also have a fleet of automated Lexus SUVs out there roaming around.
The road to a future of driverless cars won’t be a short one, we won’t all be riding around in a Google car by the end of the year. Technical hurdles, legal challenges and more remain. The driverless care will likely start like most new trends do, with high-end, early adopter prices. You will probably still need to be a licensed and capable driver to take one for a spin, just in-case you need to override the computer, though such controls will most likely remain in-place for a time for us more than it.
The idea of a driverless car doesn’t just inspire excitement, it also incites a fair amount of suspicion and fear. That said our fear of the destructive power of the car is well-founded, though it is us, not the car at fault: motor vehicle accidents, the number one cause of non-natural death in the United States, that fact is especially true among youth. When some piece of imperfect driverless technology hits the road and an accident happens expect chaos, even if the number of accident over-all with their advent is on decline. The transition will bring challenges, machines can react faster and more predictably than human beings, sure. But mix machines and humans on the same road and you’re going to get unpredictable results.
But that’s the near term. Make no mistake about it, driverless cars will rule the road and they will have a dramatic effect on our society. Let us count the ways:
1. Driverless Cars Will Get In Fewer Car Accidents:
The real benefit of a driverless car to drivers and society is the promise of safety. One recent study pegged the financial cost to Americans at $871 billion a year, that includes “594 billion in societal harm from the loss of life and the pain and decreased quality of life because of injuries.”
In 2010, there were an estimated 5,419,000 crashes, killing 32,885 and injuring 2,239,000. The 32,367 traffic fatalities in 2011 were the lowest in 62 years (1949). Records indicate that there has been a total of 3,551,332 motor vehicle deaths in the United States from 1899 to 2012.
NHTSA’s study… focuses on some of the behavioral factors that contributed to [2010’s] 32,999 highway fatalities, 3.9 million injuries and 24 million damaged vehicles. It found that just three driver behaviors, speeding [24%], drunken driving [23%] and distracted driving [15%], accounted for 56% of the economic loss to the nation and 62% of the societal harm.
Those are huge costs in both human and economic terms, and opposed to nearly every other cause of death they fall disproportionately on the young and healthy. Accidents are caused primarily by driver error. Humans drive drunk, drive tired, drive with screaming kids, drive with cellphones in their hands, drive with music blaring, drive too fast, drive angry, etc… Most of us have been personally affected by a death or injury from a car accident. A driverless road probably won’t be accident-free, but it would make the now-routine loss of life on the road far rarer.
The effects of decreased mortality on the road will also have a huge impact in other economic sectors. Do drivers still need to carry insurance? Will insurance companies be able to stay in existence at all? What will the impact on health care systems, ERs, etc… look like?
2. Driverless Car Design:
Cars are designed for their human drivers. You need a windshield to see out of, side view mirrors, a rear-view mirror, etc… Sitting behind a large, vulnerable piece of glass is, currently, a necessity. Regardless of technology, there are better materials to sit behind at 75 mph than glass.
A driverless car does not need a windshield or mirrors, cameras will do all that. It doesn’t need front facing seats at the front of the vehicle either. A driverless car doesn’t need to have every button and gizmo at arm’s reach from a single seat in the car, air conditioning, GPS, stereo, and all other systems could be controlled from anywhere in the car. No more standard transmission either….
You can also take an already safer car, because a computer is driving it, and make it even safer. Spin the seats around so that you fall into the back of the seat in an accident as opposed to out of it. Replace that front glass with a crumple zone. Hell replace all the glass with something that doesn’t shatter in a crash.
3. Driverless Cars Will Change The Layout of Roads and Traffic Patterns:
The design of roads and traffic today are built around human needs and human behavior. Tons of road signs, lane markers, and street lights. Human drivers are terrible at merging and changing lanes, we make right and left turns in traffic differently, we adapt to weather inconsistently, we tend not to obey speed limits, traffic lights and stop signs.
Computers are predictable machines. Speed limits can be safely raised for driverless cars as they will all obey the limits, and react to slowing traffic perfectly, etc… Planners can finally plan their dream roads where cars to merge in optimal and cooperative patterns. The end of road-rage as well. Traffic will likely be no more as traffic is caused by human error, here’s a great demonstration of “shockwave” traffic:
4. You Probably Won’t Own a Driverless Car
Why would you own a driverless car? Driverless cars will most likely be far more affordable from a car share standpoint and they make a lot more sense in that scenario. Let’s say you stick with the traditional and pay $500+ a month to keep a car sitting in your garage or a parking lot 98% of the time. A driverless car could be constantly on the go. It’s more logical that driverless cars will be used in more of a rent/taxi/uber-like way. You leave for work at 7am everyday and have a 20 minute commute. Your Hertz auto-car is there to pick you up at 7am and drops you off exactly 20 minutes later. During your ride you check email and get some work done, 20 minutes of the workday knocked out, because time in the car is no longer wasted time. After dropping you off the car heads down the street to scoop up another Hertz auto-car member and take them to the gym. Then it takes some kids to school, picks up groceries for another, does a whole day of automated car things. The car works 24/7. You pay a fraction of what you would to own your own car.
This will have variable economic impacts. Many fewer cars will need to be made, so fewer cars will be sold, so car companies will suffer. Americans, however, will free up a large chunk of their monthly pay check for other segments of the economy. The gas industry will also “suffer”, automated cars will drive very efficiently, so they will use far less gasoline.
5. Driverless Cars Change Who Can Drive:
Driving, today, is a major step toward social adulthood. Getting a driver’s license at 16 is a major rite of passage. High schools spend money and class time teaching Driver’s Ed. Driver’s licenses are the most widely used form of photo identification.
Currently, people with serious physical or mental handicaps cannot drive. Drunk people, high people, medicated people, etc… are not allowed to drive. The elderly lose their ability to drive as eyesight and reflexes fail and in the end they lose their independence.
A driverless car allows anyone or anything in just about any state to go for a ride. The elderly and the handicapped could have independence thanks to a driverless car. The demise of the driver’s license will create challenges, we’ve already seen it used for political gain to remove inner-city non-drivers from voting pools, the future could get ugly.
6. Driverless Cars Could Lead to a Lower Drinking Age:
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C. § 158) was passed on July 17, 1984 by the United States Congress. It punished every state that allowed persons below 21 years to buy and publicly possess alcoholic beverages by reducing its annual federal highway apportionment by ten percent.
The justification Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole gave in 1987 to uphold that rule was that it is to cut drunk-driving fatalities. Impaired driving arguments are also a major part of the case against legalizing marijuana, even though fatalities are at a historic low here in dope-friendly Colorado. The driverless car could really shake up public policy and remove a major trump card from the debates.
7. Driverless Cars Would Have Huge Impacts on Business:
If you could send your car out to do your errands for you, would you? I know I would. Hell, I make the majority of my purchases on Amazon already. If I could buy my groceries online, have a car pick them up and drop them off in a cooler I’d be a happy man. Cars could do all of this while carrying passengers as well, picking up purchases from businesses and to drop-off locations that happen to be along the passengers route.
Of course, the driverless car will probably be the final blow to mom and pop shops. Big box stores will lead the pack in online shopping to your door, but they’ll have a hard time moving from show-room type sales to internet based sales too. They already are.
And all those parking lots. Imagine being able to regain all that space. Billions of paved square footage opened up for new inner city residences, parks, community gardens, playgrounds and more.
No more gas stations either. Driverless cars don’t need to have gas stations on every corner. They can plan to stop by home base accordingly.
8. Driverless Cars Will Have Enormous Efficiency and Environmental Impacts:
Lets combine a few of the scenarios already laid out. Even if we are still running on gas by the time they’re the norm, driverless cars drive more efficiently than humans, so they’d be using less gas to achieve the same end. Now lets say that instead of me running out for groceries, and you running out for a computer part and the guy down the street running out for some new bike tires; that a car already carrying a passenger from A to B will pass by the stores that have our goods. So the car carries a passenger and grabs three people’s purchases in one pass. Computers are gathering all these requests, current car locations, etc… and determining the most efficient routes constantly. Today, the passenger would have made a one way drive on their own and three separate people would have made three separate out-and-back roundtrips. That’s a total of seven drives, combined into one. That’s a very real future with driverless cars.
Trucking will also be impacted in ways that are truly hard to comprehend. You wouldn’t see any half loaded tractor trailers on the interstate. You’d probably see train like groups of truck driving inches off of one another riding the leaders slipstream and saving gobs of gas in the process, peeling off for deliveries and merging back into the fold when they’re done.
Now combine that efficiency with budding electric technology, more solar capability as the cars would be out in the sun on the go all day long, less road repair thanks to careful driverless car driving, fewer road signs, barriers, cone zones, etc… and you have efficiency gains that are almost impossible to fathom.
9. Driverless Cars Will Kill the Taxi and the Professional Driver:
Driving provides a lot of jobs. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, limo drivers, truck drivers. Driving is a pretty dangerous gig, a Labor Department study in the 1990s found that:
From 1992-95, truckdriving had the most fatalities of all occupations, accounting for 12 percent of all worker deaths. About two-thirds of the fatally injured truckers were involved in highway crashes. Truck drivers also had more nonfatal injuries (over 151,000) than workers in any other occupation in 1995.
They also found that:
Cabdrivers had the highest homicide rate—32 homicides per 100,000—among the occupations most affected by deadly violence. This rate is four times more than that of police officers.
Driverless cars will reduce and probably eventually remove employment from these jobs, they’ll also reduce the hazards. No more trucking beyond the limits of human endurance and cooking the logs and we as consumers will reap the benefits of a faster network for distribution of goods.
10. Driverless Cars Will Force Law Enforcement to Revolutionize:
The good news for law enforcement is that a driverless road will open up wide to allow for emergency vehicles, that’s good for you too if you need to get to the hospital quickly. Law enforcement and other emergency vehicles will also probably be the last of the human operated breed.
Thanks to driverless cars logging everything with GPS, data loggers, etc.. you will lose some privacy when the police can more easily track your car’s movements, but they will lose their most common reason for pulling you over as well as their reason for searching your car.
The traffic stop will die and along with it a lot of police jobs. For most communities, speed traps and ticketing are a major source of municipal revenue. Traffic stops are also a major source of arrests for drug trafficking and other crimes.
Wealthy, white, suburban people only really see police for traffic stops. So when Police are forced to find new revenue streams, it will likely be inner city folks that feel the heat and I doubt the ‘burbs will be able to empathize.
11. The Death of Car Culture:
Who cares what you drive if you don’t drive it? An automated car is a means to get where you need to go and a means to get what you need to get. It’s not about driving passion, it’s not about exhaust fumes, a rumbling V8, a gas pedal, or running through the gears. Sure, some of us will hold on through the transition and have automated flat-beds grab our track cars and take them to a local track, but within a generation or two no one will care about the experience of driving. Tracks are expensive to keep up and cars deteriorate no matter how well you maintain them. Eventually the human operated car will be gone and with it car culture will be gone too.