(I just watched The Lego Movie and that song is going to be in my head for a month)
Let’s be very clear about something: self-driving cars are going to be awesome. I do not mean awesome like a hot dog, I mean awesome like a hundred billion hot dogs, because it’s going to change the way we do everything.
The Oatmeal recently did a comic about Google’s self-driving cars, and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one who’s completely enthralled by this idea, because this is something I’ve been excited about for a long time.
I love the idea of not paying any attention to the road when I’m going somewhere. It’ll be like riding in a cab, all of the time, but with fewer terrifying lane changes and cursing at pedestrians. You get in, you say “Take me to work” (whether you actually say that or hit some buttons is irrelevant), and then you sit back and read your book until you arrive at your space-lawyer’s office, where you do space-law because it’s the future. Then you tell the car to head home and re-charge until it needs to swing by the school to pick up your kids and deposit them at their space-oboe lesson or whatever. Or, for those of us who don’t have kids, you tell it to go home and wait until you summon it to the hyper-bar because you’ve had too many of those cocktails made with ice cubes from the water we brought back from Mars (we’re still in the future here, remember?).
More importantly, you probably won’t even have a car, because why would we all need our own cars? Most cars spend like 95% of every day just sitting idle in a garage or parking spot or whatever—why do we all need our own? Before long, there will be a handful of companies (or, god help us, just Uber) operating robotic taxi fleets: hit a button and a car pulls up, ready to take you wherever. Chances are good you won’t have to wait long, because almost every car out there will be serving these requests.
Then go one step further: how could these cars affect public transit? Busses no longer make much sense: why send one big vehicle to make lots of stops along one route, when you could have a dozen zipping around wherever they need to be? I imagine it would be like requesting a taxi, except you tell it where you want to go and how many of you are going. The network groups together people going in the same general direction from the same general area (or at least on the way from A to B) and makes four or five stops to grab each of them, and then again to drop them all at their destinations. If you’re willing to pay more, you get a private cab, the same way that taxis are different from the bus right now. Light rail will probably still make sense, just from a capacity standpoint, especially in big cities where those systems are already well established. For smaller cities, though, a fleet of cars could provide access to areas that are ill-served by current infrastructure.
Coupled with the kind of robots that already build our cars and pick the items in our Amazon-branded cardboard boxes, these cars will have similar effects on the shipping industry. Larger trucks can be automated to drive cross-country, with stops only to swap batteries. Local deliveries can happen same-day, with a fleet of smaller cars making more deliveries than a UPS truck possibly could.
The downside, of course, is that it will be a net loss for the job market, and not an equivalent replacement of jobs either: lots of driving jobs will be replaced by a small number of engineering jobs. Then again, once enough of this is automated, none of us should have to work more than a few hours a week—in theory. They’ve been predicting that with every major technological breakthrough for generations, so there’s no reason to believe that the progress made between here and a faceless postal carrier will solve the problem.
Still: I look forward to hopping in a car and taking a nap while it drives me to Milwaukee to visit friends for the weekend, and not wondering every Saturday night if I’m going to be hit by a drunk while I’m crossing the street, and not hearing about yearly traffic fatalities in the thirty-thousand range. That seems like a good thing to me.