The Future of Driverless Cars

Having just returned from a long car ride (an overnighter to State College for a conference I was speaking at), I am still thinking about a conversation with my traveling companion on a topic that often comes up when I’m on a long car ride, which is the future of driverless cars.  So consider this blog post a dumping grounds for some things I think I think about the future of autonomous vehicles.

First, I am sure our grandkids will be astonished that humans were allowed to drive.  “That sounds dangerous!  Did people die or get seriously hurt?  Yes?  This is terrifying!”

Second, it seems to me that trucking will automate way sooner than personal vehicles.  Drivers who will lose their jobs are going to be a bloc that matters in future presidential elections.

Third, with personal vehicles, way before we get full automation, you’ll see way faster adoption of driverlessness when the car is empty.  In other words, once you get out of the car, the car puts itself away.  This will happen far sooner than the cars driving us around, and it will seriously upend how we do parking.  Valets will lose their jobs, parking no longer needs to be near where we live/work/play (with massive implications for land use patterns and real estate markets), and car designers will be figuring out some way to visually or audibly signal that a car on the road is empty.

Fourth, and speaking of which, over time cars to ride vs. cars to drive will diverge in design and come to look fundamentally different, and I mean both interior and exterior.  I’m not a designer so I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but not having to drive a car will reorient how people sit in a car.  As for the outside, cars to ride will be optimized (to the point of homogeneity) for efficient travel, whereas cars to drive will proliferate in character and look.

Fifth, and on a related note, daisy chaining cars, especially on the highway, will vastly improve congestion.  No space between cars, no need for lanes, and no uncertainties associated with erratic human behavior means probably something like two to ten times more cars on the road with no loss in speed.  Or, if you want to look at it another way, the same amount of cars going way faster.  Ah, but regions must be beware of letting that make them think that you can drive your way out of your congestion problem.  It will get better at first, by a lot, but you still have to prepare for a more multi-modal world.

Sixth and finally, and picking up on the idea above, there will of course be a transition period in which there are regular cars and driverless cars.  During that period, highways will be converted from HOV vs. no HOV, into driven vs. autonomous.  This will be a major prod towards driverlessness, as drivers watch, right next to them, driverless cars going way faster and being way safer. Viscerally, the advantage will be stark and the adoption will be fast.

Will this all happen?  Oh yeah.  When will this all happen?  Very soon.

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