It’s official, we’ve arrived in the future: cars can now actually drive themselves. While the arrival of driverless cars hasn’t been without mishaps, they’re on-track to outnumber human-piloted vehicles on the roads within next five years.
But as astounding an engineering milestone as this is, most people don’t realize the transformative effects that mass fleets of autonomous cars will have on the way we live, travel and even relate to one another. So I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to make some predictions around how the evolution of the trusty automobile will change pretty much everything.
Warning: assumptions Ahead
Before we set off for a hike deep into Speculation Valley, I should probably clarify some important assumptions I’ve made in coming up with these predictions:
1. Autonomous car prices drop below $50,000 – This figure is important because it’s the point at which the technology is perceived as an affordable convenience for the middle class. The proliferation of driverless cars magnifies their effects – so while 1,000 of them might warrant a local news piece, 100,000 of them will have significant macro effects on the local economy.
2. Their reliability is proven – It’s one thing to get a car to drive itself around a track, and an entirely different challenge to get it reacting and adapting to complex urban, suburban and rural areas. Trusting the robots to handle our driving for us is a big thing for the general public to swallow, and as we’ve already seen, accidents that highlight the technology’s defects generate lots of headlines with strong scrutiny.
3. There are more autonomous cars than people on the road – Once autonomous driving becomes the default mode of wheeled transportation, city planning and legislation will accommodate for it more than manual drivers.
4. There’s high-level legislative cooperation – Even as I’ve been writing this post, the US government has released its guidelines for driverless cars, paving the way forward for their mass rollout to the public.
Ok, so those are my caveats – let’s take a peek at the coming driverless world, shall we?
How will Autonomous Cars change our lives?
There will be more of us alive
An estimated 1.25 million people worldwide died in traffic accidents in 2013, with the leading cause of those accidents being distracted driving. A road full of autonomous cars that never lose focus, never get tired, and never change lanes without signaling just to grab that elusive Pokemon, means millions more people will continue living, breathing and liking stuff on Facebook each year.
From an economic and human capital perspective, that’s awesome! More people, living longer, productive lives. From an environmental perspective however, a million extra people walking around per year (not including the kids they’ll likely go on to have), is going to further accelerate our population growth and resource consumption, putting more strain on our planet’s resources.
We’ll all drink more
The alcohol industry will see a boom in sales as those party-pooper designated drivers become relics of the past, and passengers are able to sit back and toast each other while Johnny Cab ferries them wherever they want.
In the US, once the number of driverless cars on the road is proven to exert downward pressure on the number of accidents, the alcohol lobby will pressure the government to abolish open container laws.
Spending on sedentary entertainment will explode
By which I refer to the usual suspects: alcohol, food, streaming movies and music, ebooks, video games and sex.
“Driverless cars will make people spend more on sex??”
Yep! Well, porn mainly. Let me explain: the only functional difference between your sofa, and the interior of your car is that someone has to drive your car – but not for much longer. The typical car journey involves everyone sitting in a comfy chair, entertaining themselves and fiddling with the air conditioning until they reach their destination.
The only functional difference between your sofa, and the interior of your car, is that someone has to drive your car – but not for much longer.
The average daily commute in the US is ~25 minutes each way, going up to ~36 minutes in heavily car-centric cities like Los Angeles. This means we’re going to see an explosion in demand for – and consumer spending on – in-transit entertainment. Millions of commuting workers will suddenly find themselves with an extra 5-7 hours per week (25+ hours a month!) to spend however they wish – so long as they can do it in the confines of a moving vehicle. In the meantime, porn sites are getting more visits than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined – so you do the math as to how many will choose to spend their newfound free time.
But sex isn’t all we’ll do in our driverless cars. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming video providers will all benefit from the rising tide of sedentary entertainment. Expect TV ratings for the 6am-9am and 4pm-6pm time slots to suddenly become far more sought-after by advertisers and priced as prime-time by TV networks – after all, all those people stuck in their cars suddenly need something to occupy themselves with en route to their destinations.
Don’t even get me started on the insanity that’ll occur once virtual reality and augmented reality get added to your daily commute…
We’ll see a short-term spike in unemployment…
The writing’s already on the wall for professional drivers, which means we’ll need to find them some other kind of gainful employment. Taxi & limo drivers, long-haul truckers, couriers, agricultural drivers, valets – all commercial human drivers will be rapidly phased out, or given “elevator attendant” duties to help passengers become accustomed to the cars doing their own thing. We’re already seeing this hybrid phase taking shape with Uber’s Pittsburgh experiment.
…and a boom in construction
Approximately 14% of Los Angeles is dedicated to parking spaces – that’s 200 square miles of space taken up with vehicles that are just sitting there, slowly depreciating in the Californian sunshine!
As autonomous drivers enable cars to keep moving for longer on average, the need for new parking spots will slow or even start to decline. This means land-owners who were previously generating revenue from parking lots will suddenly need to find other ways to monetize that space. I’m guessing you’ll be seeing a lot more construction happening on land that was previously filled with cars, if only because we’ll no longer need all these stop signs and traffic lights.
UPDATE: President of Lyft John Zimmerman has articulated this wholesale shift in the way we use land as a result of driverless cars in a ton of depth right here: The Third Transportation Revolution
Tickets & Taxes will go up
With declining demand for parking, local governments will see falling revenue from tickets & traffic violations. My guess is they’ll try to compensate by increasing the amounts of these fines or seeking to grow their annual revenue from other tax sources. Yey.
Car interior design will evolve
Although still at the concept phase, car manufacturers are already experimenting with the modular, reconfigurable car interiors to accommodate for a far wider range of, ahem, in-vehicle activities. Let’s face it: while this technology is still percolating down to the masses, boning in an autonomous vehicle is going to become the new mile-high club. You may want to seriously consider investing in those optional tinted windows, next time you’re at the dealership.
Car ownership will decline, then (maybe) ramp up again
It’s pretty well known now that owning a car is a financial liability. Unless you’re a professional driver, your car is simply losing you money as it sits there depreciating in the driveway – a loss that’s hopefully (but not always) offset by the greater access to job opportunities that it provides you.
My prediction? Car ownership as a concept will fade gradually but may be temporarily buoyed by the introduction of autonomous fleets made up of cars owned by the public. As Elon Musk describes in his visionary Master Plan Part Deux, the viability of an on-demand transit infrastructure has already been proven by the stonking market valuations of Lyft ($5.5bn) and Uber ($66bn!). Rather than lose their owners money, cars will suddenly turn into a cash-generating asset for their owners, if they participate in the public transit carpool.
Mechanics & auto maintenance businesses will see a drop in revenue as accidents become increasingly rare, but get this: insurance profits will soar thanks to the plunging frequency of car accidents causing a corresponding drop in payouts, plus lagging changes to legislation that makes it mandatory to carry car insurance.
coming soon(er than you think)
The transition to autonomous cars will have far-reaching effects on the way we live – some good and some bad.
We’re going to see a lot of business winners from this change, particularly in entertainment & leisure, as the burden of transporting ourselves from place to place is lifted from our shoulders. We’re also going to see a lot of uncertainty and short-term turbulence, as common occupations in transportation and logistics are suddenly rendered obsolete.
Now, as always, our willingness to adapt, and open-mindedness to new ways of living will determine just how wrenching this change is to our day-to-day.