How Self-Driving Cars Will Change the World

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(Source: Wikimedia)

This is you ten years from now. (Source: Wikimedia)

I hope you like to read about self driving cars, because I like to write about them. Hopefully I’ll get to do that for a few years before they learn how to write about themselves. Self-driving cars are going to change everything, with effects far beyond just the experience for the driver; they’re going to change it soon, and here’s how.

I’ve heard plenty of people say that we’re decades away from fully autonomous self-driving cars. But let’s take a look at some of the things that are happening right now. You can already buy cars with limited self-driving features (such as the ability to stay in a lane, stay at a constant speed, and stay a certain distance from the car in front of you). Trucks can travel in a convoy, with only the lead truck having a driver to control where they go. Finally, far from being decades away, Google’s self-driving cars, while not available for sale, are already fully autonomous. The self-driving revolution is only going to pick up speed, as there are at least thirty large companies working on self-driving cars, including the world’s largest automakers such as Ford, GM, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

What will change for the experience of driving (or riding, as it’ll be) when all cars are automated? Absolutely everything.

It’s going to be a lot more comfortable. Something as simple as cruise control already makes a long journey more pleasant, since you don’t have to have your foot constantly adjusting speed. Now imagine you don’t have to use your hands, either. You can sit back and relax, watching the scenery.

Gone will be the rage-inducing power of traffic jams. When you don’t have to worry about it, what does it matter if the car in front of you keeps stopping and starting? Just drink some water. Read the paper. Look at the clouds. Do your work, if you’re that kind of person.

Of course, traffic jams themselves will be gone. Traffic jams are caused by drivers operating independently of each other, all going at different speeds, each stopping at different times, nobody knowing what the intentions of the other driver are. Self-driving cars will be able to communicate instantly with all other cars around them. A car at the front of a line of forty cars can stop, and instantly every other car will stop. When it starts again, all other cars can start at the same time, forever banishing the experience of each driver taking two seconds to realize the one in front has started.

Stopping at all during a journey could be eliminated, since connected cars could smoothly travel around each other without the need for traffic lights or stop signs.

With a self-driving car, you won’t need a steering wheel or pedals, so you’ll have more room. Perhaps the dash will have a computer or TV built in instead, or for those of us who like writing, maybe it’ll be a writing desk.

Self-driving cars also won’t even need seats, because nobody needs to be sat upright watching the road. There could be self-driving cars which have a bed in place of the four seats, so you could get in at night, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning having gone 500 miles.

Mercedes concept showing seats in a car facing each other for talking or dining. (Source: Gizmag)

Mercedes concept showing seats in a car facing each other for talking or dining.
(Source: Gizmag)

Watching the scenery is one of the best parts of riding in a car, but a self-driving car doesn’t technically even need windows. You could have the windshield as a TV, or the windows could be made to turn opaque so you could sleep during the day or have privacy.

Car ownership will be only for car enthusiasts, if those will still even exist.

Right now, cars are sitting idle 90% of the time. Think about it: you sleep eight hours of the day. You work eight hours of the day. A couple more hours you watch TV or browse Facebook. The average motorist drives for just 45 minutes a day. Yet, those 45 minutes a day may cost you hundreds of dollars a month in insurance, lease payments, and – depending on where you live – parking fees.

Imagine, instead, that each city or state (or perhaps organizations like Uber, taxi associations, AAA or your employer) had a fleet of cars, and you could pay a fee to have access to them, much lower than what you’d pay on your own. Using an app (or something else in the future, who knows) you can say when you want a car to pick you up, and where you want it to drop you off. You won’t need to worry about finding a parking place, because the car can drop you off and find one for you. When it comes time to pick you up, or as you approach the door to leave, the car could pick you up right where it dropped you off. During work, or during the night, that same car can be ferrying other passengers or packages while you have no need for it. This more efficient use of cars means less cars will need to be manufactured, and our natural resources can be preserved.

Self-driving cars are efficient in another way too, which is in their use of fuel. Their driving patterns are better than a human’s, and they can follow more closely behind other cars because they can break more quickly. They don’t need as many safety features, so they will be lighter and will take less fuel to move. The car could be matched to every trip. If you’re only one person, a large vehicle wouldn’t come to pick you up. Perhaps one-person vehicles will be made for people on their own, saving space, materials, and fuel. Some estimates put the fuel savings as high as 70% (this article is a very interesting examination of the subject, and goes into a lot of detail, including some possible negative effects).

In a self-driving car, nobody knows you're a dog. (Source: Car and Driver)

In a self-driving car, nobody knows you’re a dog.
(Source: Car and Driver)

An interesting thing to consider about self-driving cars is that they don’t actually need a person in them at all. You could send a car to do an errand for you, such as pick up your dry-cleaning or take something to the post office. It’s so difficult to get things done for people who work full time, but self-driving cars will really lower the burden of errands that people have.

Driving will be the safest form of transport – safer than walking.

There are 30,000 deaths in car accidents along with more than 2 million injuries in the US every year, and 1.3 million deaths (!!) across the world. Self driving cars will save all of those people.

90% of accidents are caused by human error. Properly designed, a computer cannot make an error. When is the last time your calculator gave you the wrong answer, for example? 60% of accidents with teen drivers are caused by distraction. Again, a computer cannot be distracted.

A human can only look in one direction at a time. A self-driving car can see in front of, behind, and on both sides (in a human driver’s blind spots) all at the same time. Some of the self-driving systems being developed use radar and infrared cameras, meaning that a self-driving car can see through bushes, around corners, even above its roof. Driving at night is more dangerous for a human, but with these technologies it will be exactly as safe as driving in the day.

As I mentioned before, self-driving cars will be able to communicate with each other, meaning if a car half a mile away sees a tree falling across the road at night, it can alert every other car nearby so that they know not to go there.

These are just the technologies that we have now. What might come in the future? Human driving capabilities are fixed. We’re just as good at driving as we were a hundred years ago, Self-driving cars, on the other hand, are better than they were a year ago, much better than they were ten years ago, and will soon be a thousand times beyond what humans can hope to achieve.

Unfortunately for driving enthusiasts, once it becomes clear how much safer self-driving cars are than human drivers (potentially 100% safer), manual cars will become illegal on public roads, or will require heavy training and licensing and prohibitively expensive insurance.

Truck driving is the most dangerous profession in America, but it’s about to become the safest. In fact, it’s about to disappear as a profession entirely.

Self-driving cars will create massive unemployment and change our economy, our society, and our whole world.

Truck drivers can only drive a certain amount of hours in the day. They’re limited by law, but also by their humanity – people need sleep. Machines don’t need sleep, and they don’t make mistakes, and they don’t need the average $40,000 a year salary that truckers get. The incentive for trucking companies to get rid of drivers is enormous, and that industry is going to be the first to adopt this technology in a big way.

Truck driving is one of the largest professions in America, with more than three and a half million drivers. They’re all going to become unemployed. But it’s not just truck drivers. Self-driving cars are also going to take out delivery drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and any other job that involves primarily sitting behind a wheel, along with the automobile insurance and collision repair industries. Altogether, we’re looking at greater than 5% of the work force.

That’s just the drivers, though. With self-driving cars, we can say goodbye to truckstops, the majority of gas stations, mechanics, and tens of thousands of restaurants and hotels. Altogether, the number of people unemployed by self-driving cars could pass ten million. I’m not an expert, but I know the effect doesn’t stop there, because so many unemployed people will be a drag on the economy.

Here’s where it gets most interesting for me, and passes into pure speculation. Why am I most interested by pure speculation? I wonder…

I'm going to ask my self-driving car to go to the city on the left. Hopefully it listens. (Source: Unknown)

I’m going to ask my self-driving car to go to the city on the left. Hopefully it listens.
(Source: Unknown)

Anyway, it’s not just cars that are becoming automated. The factories that make cars are automated. Fast food cashiers are becoming automated. Incredibly, half of all jobs are at risk of being automated within the next twenty years. What is a society with such high unemployment going to look like? Ideas about what it means to be a productive member of society are going to have to change. Work is going to change – will it even exist as we know it today? How will people get money? Will money even exist? Are we self-driving ourselves towards a dystopian future where we live in the street and beg for scraps thrown from the windows of our masters, the cars? Or are we cruising smoothly towards a glorious utopia where our environment is preserved, resources are more fairly shared, and I can finally nap while my car’s going 90MPH? I don’t have the answers to these questions, and neither does anyone else – but the questions are coming, whether we know how to answer them or not.

Let me know your thoughts!