I think rarely another topic is as symptomatic for the times we live in as the self-driving or autonomous car. What seems to be a nice gimmick at first glance encompasses the whole spectrum of societal change that seems unavoidable when current technological visions become reality. After all, a lot of once crazy ideas have become reality and deeply impacted how we live.

All of the big changes during my lifetime, e.g. the computer, internet, smartphones, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), in vitro fertilization (IVF), etc., just happened; I was not able to consider their impacts on my life or society before they became standard technologies.

It’s different for the self-driving car. The idea of an autonomous car is almost as old as the car itself. From that perspective, we’ve had a long time to prepare for its impact. But what are the consequences of ubiquitous self-driving cars?

Imagine some time in the future when self-driving cars are safe and affordable. How do you think self-driving ability (SDA) could affect our daily lives?

I can see three scenarios:


1) SDA is not used that much and has not much impact.
Maybe every car will have autonomous driving capability as a feature but people don’t use it that much. Having the car take over could be more of an option than a must; for example in dense traffic or on the daily commute. But other than that driving a car yourself could still be considered fun.

Our lives wouldn’t change that much. We may feel better than now when our kids start driving because the car will always actively monitor their actions and will intervene when needed. Maybe if we are out on a bike ride and have a problem, we’ll be able to call the car and get a ride back home without a problem. Maybe DUIs will disappear because cars might not start without passing an alcohol test. If we don’t pass the car may drive us home instead.

2) SDA is used a lot but has not much impact.
Maybe everyone will sit in their own car, now on the passenger seat and enjoy the stress-free ride to work.
Maybe we just give up driving ourselves, but will still enjoy owning a car. There might not be cab drivers anymore, I don’t know. It’s one thing to have your own car – that you know and that you take care of yourself – pick you up, but trusting a car that you don’t know take control requires another level of trust. Not sure if I’d want to do away with some human representation in this case. Some things would probably change, cars could interact with each other help avoid traffic jams, move quickly out of the way for firetrucks, thus helping decrease response times, but self-driving cars would not cause a complete change in how we live beyond the road.

3) SDA is used a lot and completely disrupts our life as we know it.
Maybe we will do away with personal car ownership. We will call a car just how we call a taxi or an Uber/Lyft today. The car arrives, drives us to our destination and then drives off to park or to pick up its next guest. Just thinking about this scenario, I can see very significant direct and indirect changes to our daily life far beyond the road. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. But maybe my thinking is too far out there.

The Possibilities

In my own research, I often took experiments to their extremes to see what is possible. The good think about thought experiments is that you don’t need another resource but the time to extrapolate the possibilities to an (intermittent) logical end.

The third scenario above is such an extreme for me: Sometime in the future, we got rid of personal car ownership. There will still be cars on the road, but they belong to corporations or public entities and are all driving autonomous. Like an Uber/Lyft today, a driverless car will be at our disposal with the push of a button. How do you think life would look like as a consequence?

Let’s start with the most obvious.

Land use
We won’t need as many parking lots. Ideally, this space is used for parks, helping to make cities greener than they are now. Likely, however, this extra space will be used for more buildings making urban areas even denser, and along with it the traffic. A good thing is that self-driving cars will allow navigating in very dense traffic without clogging it.

Traffic flow
Autonomous cars are full of sensors and devices allowing all sorts of communication, e.g. among each other or with city infrastructure. Distances between cars can be minimized and traffic lights may even be controlled through that communication and thus maximize possible traffic flow immensely. Emergency vehicles will get much faster through traffic as contrary to human drivers no one will overlook them or not know what to do.

Traffic safety
The number traffic-related accidents will drastically fall, making vehicular traffic the safest mode of transportation. In fact, it may be even safer than sleeping in your bed, as your car may be able to monitor basic life functions and notice when you are in distress. Cars may then not only communicate your situation to the closest hospital they will drive you right in front it.

Today many people commute more than 60 minutes per day, with both hands at the wheel there is only so much one can do. However, when driving becomes a passive activity, we would suddenly have lots of additional time at our now free hands. Of course, we could continue to work, but we could also watch movies, listen to music, play video games, read or even sleep.

Air and noise pollution
It is much easier for computers to control electric cars than it is for conventional cars with combustion engines. It’s also much easier (i.e. safer) to automatically connect a car to a plug than it is to fill it with gas. There is no fire hazard with electric cars and they have much fewer moving parts than mechanical combustion engines. So if there is ever a scenario like this one, all cars (or almost all) cars will likely be electric cars in my opinion. Thus, drastically improving the air quality in cities. Also, electric cars are silent, self-driving cars wouldn’t honk and traffic noise wouldn’t be a problem anymore. If parking lots would be replaced with green areas then cities could become pleasant sanctuaries for local recreation.

The Drawbacks

This all sounds like a great new future, but of course, there are drawbacks and many secondary effects.

Again, the imaginary future is that we got rid of personal car ownership. There will still be cars on the road, but they belong to corporations or public entities and are driving autonomous. Like an Uber/Lyft today a driverless car will be at our disposal with the push of a button.

Dependence on technology
I believe reaching the point at which we trust machines enough to drive us around, will also be a watermark for human-machine interaction. Through daily use, our concerns will disappear and we will allow machines to take over tasks unthinkable today. Very likely we would no longer drive our kids anywhere, we would just trust the cars to do that. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched that we could easily become totally dependent on technology at this point.

If you think about that, the fossil fuel consuming cars of today are the last analog stronghold for most. We now live in a service and office culture, a lot of the manual labor has been outsourced. And so is the conventional car already a relic of a time when fossil fuel powered engines changed the face of the earth. Now electronic devices have taken over and soon regular cars will be history.
The new cars will seamlessly integrate into a digital world. When our fridge tells us to buy more milk and ham, we’ll use an app to order more, and the same day a drone or self-driving car will deliver the order to our doorstep. Although this sounds like fantastic science-fiction to me, every single step of this process has already been realized today. The combination is only a matter of time. We will not only depend on technology as individuals but as nations. One power outage, one failing server can have drastic consequences

This is all very convenient, but convenience is the killer of social life. Is already very convenient to communicate via Snapchat or Facetime, why leave the house to meet in person? Instead of going to the library or asking someone, we can look up the answer online when we have a question. Emails have replaced many phone calls long ago. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, but ubiquitous self-driving cars will keep us at home, for the sole reason that our involvement will no longer be needed for the transport of goods between places.

Less downtime
When people realize they can work while they commute, they will also realize that you can do the same. As a consequence, the commute will no longer be an excuse for not working or not being available.

Our phones already record where we are and where we go. So the question of using this data has already come up. But now consider the scenario, individuals no longer own the cars on public streets. Thus, a bank robber will find it hard to find a private escape vehicle. But let’s say some criminal is on the run. Wouldn’t it be sensible to utilize the many external and internal sensors of the self-driving cars to find him? Suddenly, there will be millions of cameras on the streets and somehow the thought doesn’t make me feel safer.

Monotonous Cities/Streets
Computers prefer repetitious patterns. In order to accommodate self-driving cars, it is therefore, ideal when all streets look the same.
Many American Cities are already cookie cutter copies and chances are, this is not getting better. Especially if the now obsolete parking spaces are used for more buildings.

A lot of people will lose their jobs when cars shed their drivers. For example, the US has currently 3.5 million truck drivers. Yes, in the past industrialized countries already managed to shift their workforce from agriculture to manufacturing to service. And the world hasn’t ended despite new technologies. But this shift has to happen again, and now very quickly on a very large scale. According to a study by researchers from the Oxford University in the UK, as much as 47 percent of the US workforce may get replaced by automated technologies in the next 20 years. That’s a lot of people.

Secondary Effects

The urban environment
As mentioned above, I can only see self-driving cars taking off if they are electric cars. Their use would directly lead to reduced urban air and noise pollution. Another maybe not so obvious advantage would be that without petrochemicals, stormwater runoff from streets could much easier be cleaned and then be reused for irrigation, for flushing our toilets or to wash our cars and more. Today a lot of it ends up in treatment plans or is discharged untreated into rivers that remove the water out of the urban areas.

This is particularly interesting for drought-plagued cities like Los Angeles or San Diego because it would allow retaining a lot of the stormwater, which could then help to maintain the additional parks and other green areas that could replace many parking spaces. More green spaces and more moisture will improve the urban micro-climate.

Without the expense of drivers, little street sweeping cars could drive around the city and keep it clean and inspect it at the same time. The result would be a much cleaner and safer environment.

All these effects combined would then likely reduce the occurrence of many illnesses like Asthma or stress-induced ill health.

Rural Power Factory Wastelands

Obviously, there will be an immense need for electrical power. If we are not able to improve our power grid and general power consumption, all the environmental benefits for cities could be outweighed multiple times by what could happen in remote rural areas, where all the power will likely be produced.

The human driver as a problem
Let’s face it, we are terrible drivers. Accidents happen all the time. Guess, what might happen if we’d see a reduction of accident rates with increasing numbers of self-driving cars? It may become illegal to drive yourself on public streets.

Social structure
As I wrote above, we may lose almost half of our workforce due to automation in the next 20 years. We will probably replace those jobs with jobs we can’t even imagine. 30 years ago only a few if any at all have imagined what a professional YouTuber, Uber driver, E-book author, or Internet Attorney would be. But what if don’t replace those jobs?
What if there is no need to replace them because our social structure changes so much that the typical 9 to 5 jobs completely disappear. Imagine a world where machines accomplish all activities that are tedious labor. Work could become redundant. Having a job with defined hourly pay is actually a relatively new concept that was brought about for the masses with the industrial revolution. Maybe we transition into a new phase where most people only work a few hours a day because there is not that much to do.

If you get on a bus today you have to accept where the bus is going. You have no power to change the route once you entered the bus. What if autonomous cars become a thing? In a scenario where cars are no longer owned by individuals, a lot will depend on who owns them. The distance you can go may depend on legislative or commercial boundaries.
Maybe you’ll have to stop at a mall for 15 minutes before you can continue on your trip to your Grandma. Maybe depending on your credit score (which will be accessible via your thumbprint that you will need to board the vehicle) you’ll get different cars or accessible destinations. Will it be possible for you in the future to stop by the grocery store on the way to a business meeting your employer pays for the ride? Will the right for mobility be coupled with certain conditions, like a healthy weight, paid taxes, age, political affiliation, etc.?

I guess we will see. Happy future!