That last post got quite a response. It was really fun reading all the comments. Thanks to everyone for keeping the conversation civilized and productive.
One recurring theme that kept appearing in the comments section was that of self-driving cars. If self-driving, autonomous, driverless (whatever you want to call them) cars still seem like science fiction to you, they probably won’t seem that way for long. I am not even going to make the argument about whether or not they are coming. They ARE coming! Google seems to have nearly perfected the technology behind it. At this point, it is only a matter of sorting out the legalities of introducing millions of self-driving cars onto our roadways.
Just for fun, here is a short TED Talk on Google’s cars. The technology is absolutely awe inspiring.
If we assume that these cars are coming, the next question is: How will this change our driving habits and our lives? I have two very different expectations of what will happen when Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and all the other big manufacturers start putting out self-driving cars.
First the optimistic expectation. In the optimistic future, self-driving cars will provide a complete paradigm shift in the way we think about transportation. If self-driving cars become the main form of transportation, there is no practical reason to own a personal car. Think about it, when cars are in storage approx. 95% of the time, that is a wasted resource. This is the reason that we require so much parking. What if during that 95% of downtime, the cars were off handling other trips like driver-less taxis? When you needed a car, you summon it and it appears Batmobile style within seconds, or at the worst a few minutes.
How great would that be? You no longer have to worry about maintenance or parking and you get to split the cost of the car with everyone who uses it. Parking would free up all over the city because it is no longer needed. You don’t get stuck with a single car. If you need a 7 person SUV, you get it. If you need a pickup truck, you get it. If you need a single passenger vehicle, you get it. And since you aren’t tied to your car, you might even walk more. Previously you would drive that 1 mile to the grocery store, now you may walk it and simply opt for a ride back. The sunk cost of owning and operating a car would vanish. You would only pay for what you actually use. This might actually prompt alternative transportation use. It is hard to justify taking the train, when I have already sunk 20 grand into my car. If enough people exchange a few car trips for walking or transit, we may even see a return to more walkable communities. This would, of course, lead to even more people choosing walking and transit. I can really see some positive momentum coming from intelligently used autonomous vehicles.
Now for the pessimistic vision of the future. Nothing changes. It is the same model that we have now. Every single person owns his or her own car. We still have to store all those cars 95% of the time and the only real difference in the commute is that you can watch cartoons on the way to work instead of driving. Granted safety would be greatly improved and maybe some increase in efficiency on the highway. Although as long as some people are still driving themselves mixed in with the driver-less cars, not much efficiency can be gained.
What would really happen in this scenario is that urban sprawl would increase dramatically. When people are deciding on where to buy a house, they are weighing cost per square foot against commute times. People who currently tolerate a 45 min. trip to work in exchange for the 6000 square foot McMansion way out in the exurbs, can now really spread out. Instead of driving 45 min. to work, you can move 2 hours away from work and sleep in your car on the way in each morning. Hell, why not live 8 hours away and do all of your sleeping in your car. (OK maybe that is a little crazy)
Each time a new mode of transportation is introduced (bikes, trolleys, trains, cars, highways, etc.) our cities change shapes. Make no mistake, self-driving cars will not be a simple improvement over our current system. They will have a dramatic effect on the shapes of our cities. Ultimately we will probably have a mix of both the pessimistic and optimistic views. After all, what is pessimistic to me may be optimistic to someone else. This is OK, as long as the net effect is an increased quality of life in the towns and cities where most of us live.
EDIT: The blog Narrow Lanes has an interesting post on driver-less cars with more examples and a skeptical POV from someone who doesn’t want to lose the joy of driving by turning control over to machines. It is worth a read.