How self-driving vehicles will change everything

By 2030 — fourteen years from now — I believe it will be unusual to see a car being driven by a person. In many cities or countries, driving your own car will be illegal.

I suspect that the first cities with mandatory adoption of self-driving electric vehicles will be in China. The country’s countless megacities are hobbled by traffic, the air is choked with smog, and the government is authoritarian enough to make sweeping changes to transportation policy overnight. The last places to adopt will be in America, where cars often contribute to a sense of personal identity as much as guns or religion, and our stubborn independent streak frequently makes us immune to logic.

The immediate benefits of self-driving cars are straightforward: less time spent in frustrating traffic jams and more personal productivity, for example. While true, I believe that vision to be myopic, missing the seismic societal shifts that will come along with autonomous vehicles.

By 2050, I believe historians will reflect on the last century and posit that networked computers (i.e. the Internet) and autonomous electric vehicles were the most important and transformative technologies of our age.

I am not an autonomous vehicle expert, but I have lived without a car for many years in cities where living car-free is relatively uncommon. That perspective has made me believe we are on the cusp of a radical transformation in how ordinary people live, sparked by the kindling of vehicles that pilot themselves. For example:

Private vehicles
Car ownership will be the realm of the wealthy and elite. Most of us will summon a car wherever we happen to be, and one will arrive within seconds or minutes. On the low-end, a quick trip across town will cost significantly less than a cab or bus ride today, and the high-end will provide more plush or amenity-rich experiences. It will be like a driverless version of Uber, but with much shorter wait times and a much larger diversity of in-vehicle experiences.

Gas stations will rapidly become scarce, then extinct. Moreover, when autonomous electric cars recharge and receive maintenance, it will take place out of sight and mind, happening discretely between passenger pickups or during lulls in demand.

Cities today are peppered with countless parking lots and garages. These will rapidly become unnecessary, as most cars will spend their days whizzing around the city without stopping for extended periods of time. Due to their ubiquity, some parking garages may be transformed into maintenance and recharging facilities for autonomous cars. Countless other garages will be destroyed and redeveloped. Once few people own cars, an industry will emerge to convert home garages into more useful spaces.

Today’s friction in the speed and cost of having goods delivered will quickly evaporate. This trend has already emerged in the last few years with services like Amazon Prime, Blue Apron, or Postmates, but these are awkward pioneers in what will soon feel like the normal shape of things. Furthermore, the mental distinction between delivering goods and driving a person will evaporate: delivering a pizza and sending a child to school will be largely identical processes.

Retail stores
Many retail stores will disappear in favor of delivery, with those remaining offering experiential characteristics that are difficult to replicate through digital or physical delivery. In the next fifteen years, near-instant delivery of anything will shift from magical to mundane, much like how the Internet became ingrained into our lives between 2000 and 2015. People may still enjoy a serendipitous amble through a grocery store, but the cart might drive itself home when the shopping is finished.

Renting eclipses owning
Beyond vehicle ownership itself, autonomous vehicles will cause people to own far fewer products. Why own a drill or a saw if one could just appear when you need it and disappear when you’re finished drilling or sawing? Netflix and Spotify have demonstrated the demand for business models where items are not directly owned, but rather temporarily shared or rented. The Internet has caused these rental-based services to flourish for anything that can be digitized, and autonomous vehicles will cause the same shift to happen in products or services which cannot.

With fewer cars in existence and computer-optimized routes for delivering goods, services, and people, cities will recognize that their roads are needlessly wide, built to compensate the fallibility of human drivers. At first, sidewalks will be able to safely encroach into areas currently dedicated to on-street parking because autonomous cars will rarely need to stop moving. Depending on the density of the city, pedestrians may be able to reclaim significant chunks of the street that were lost to automobiles in the middle of the 20th century. Many streets could become pedestrian-only without leading to gridlock.

When cars can communicate and coordinate with each other invisibly, stoplights will become unnecessary. Vehicles and pedestrians will need to establish a new groove for dealing with each other. Cities will try out possibilities, but I suspect one of two themes will emerge: all vehicles will yield to people, or all people will yield to vehicles. I assume the back-and-forth nature of today’s stoplights will feel like an antiquated remnant of a time when people both walked and drove, and we needed a mechanism to help the two form a voiceless truce. Vehicles will be adept at avoiding people, but I doubt the system will be based on strictly on anarchy. We will rewrite our rules and assumptions about how vehicles and people interact.

In the United States alone, more than thirty-thousand people die in automobile-related accidents per year, with countless others injured. The first cities to fully embrace autonomous vehicles will see a sharp and immediate decline in accidents and fatalities. These numbers will cause driverless-only areas to spread like wildfire, as our desire to stay alive will trump the freedom inherent piloting our own course. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance asserts that driverless cars “could be the great public-health achievement of the 21st century.” Like millennials watching people relentlessly smoke cigarettes on Mad Men, younger generations will be baffled by the insane recklessness of generations who drove their own vehicles. Mothers Against Drunk Driving will quietly disband because drunk driving will no longer exist.

Disabled & elderly people
Driverless vehicles will have a profound impact on what it means to be disabled or elderly. For people whose primary challenge in life is mobility, having a fleet of cheap and efficient public vehicles available at a moment’s notice will be truly life-changing. Moreover, mobility devices like scooters or wheelchairs are likely to become autonomous vehicles in their own right, allowing people to navigate obstacles and move around as easily as anyone else can, even in old age.

As delivery and distribution of food becomes less expensive through autonomous transportation, I suspect restaurants and bars will continue to proliferate, despite a decline in large-scale retail. Perhaps more strongly than ever, communities will crave a third place between home and work. The economy will shift from one based on ownership to one focused on experiences. Autonomous vehicles themselves may become new places to hang out: the future equivalent of a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant, set in motion.

Vehicle types
Self-driving vehicles will allow new forms of transportation experiences to emerge. Overnight sleeper buses are common today in Asia, but unusual most other places. Your 2030 summer vacation could be spent visiting every National Park in the United States, with nights spent in a comfortable vehicular hotel room, moving gently from one park to the next as you sleep. It’s easy to imagine vehicles specifically tailored for the most common human activities: sleeping, working, eating, or socializing, but it is likely that this technology will open up weird and unforeseen possibilities. Imagine a subscription service where a family gets taken on new adventures every weekend without having to book, research, or arrange anything: they just walk out the door and the autonomous car takes care of the rest.

Vehicles shapes & sizes
The automated and specific nature of vehicles will allow them to be a bit smaller and than today’s vehicles. The need for behemoths like tractor trailers will decrease as routes are optimized and vehicles become more specialized. New types of passenger-less vehicles will emerge too: skateboard-sized vehicles for hyperlocal delivery, not unlike those zipping around the deck of the Death Star in Star Wars. Smaller vehicles are likely to be allowed to travel inside buildings too, meaning transportation or delivery options may traverse interior and exterior spaces.

At the end of 2013, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos made news by announcing his company’s prototypes for delivering goods using small airborne drones, circumventing traditional ground delivery services like FedEx or UPS. Airborne drones will likely be a part of the future of moving people or physical goods, although I’m skeptical that drones will be more commonplace than rolling vehicles. I’m doubtful people will tolerate the unnerving chaos of millions of drones flying around in the sky, but it is easier to imagine consolidated drone highways, or low-flying drones hovering just above rolling vehicles on streets.

Planes are largely autonomous already, apart from takeoff and landing, and it seems likely this trend may continue to the point where human pilots are no longer a part of flight. There may also be a blurring of lines between modes of transportation, where the distinction between flight and traveling overland becomes inconsequential.

Vehicular hacking & terrorism
Like any new technology, autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a target for malicious behavior. It will be possible to hack and hijack a car of a politician or celebrity, or seize hundreds of cars simultaneously to cripple a city, or form a large-scale vehicular army. Because vehicles would make easy targets for terrorists and other malicious actors, experts in encryption and security will make autonomous vehicles a top priority.

Public transportation
Some equivalent to shared buses may exist in this autonomous future, but the fate of today’s light rail and subway lines makes me scratch my head. Compared to driving on ground level directly from Point A to Point B on congestion-free streets, these systems are likely to feel antiquated and clunky. Why would someone go underground and board a train in Manhattan, if zipping across the city above ground is cheap and relatively friction-free?

Daily commutes
With autonomous vehicles and ubiquitous internet, it will increasingly be possible to live and work in completely different places because commuting will no longer feel like frustrating downtime. People may choose longer and more productive commutes from a rustic rural hideaway, for example, or the enticing draw of lively pedestrian-oriented cities may eliminate vehicular commutes entirely for many people. Of course, the ability to collaborate remotely may eliminate offices too, although I suspect many people will still enjoy the unplanned serendipity of gathering in the same physical space.

American-style suburbs are a peculiar anomaly in the history of civilization: they are the first places structured completely around the ease of driving and parking. What will happen when these activities are no longer performed by humans? Suburbs may need to adapt to these new realities. Perhaps millions of barren parking lots covering our world could be transformed back into the fields, farms, or forests they once were, prior to being slathered with asphalt during the 1950s automobile boom.

With every shift in technology comes concerns about the effects on people. What will happen to the millions of people who drive trucks, buses, and cabs? In a recent issue of The Atlantic about the future of work, Derek Thompson notes that new technologies can have unforeseen effects:

Who could have guessed in 2005, two years before the iPhone was released, that smartphones would threaten hotel jobs within the decade, by helping homeowners rent out their apartments and houses to strangers on Airbnb? Or that the company behind the most popular search engine would design a self-driving car that could soon threaten driving, the most common job occupation among American men?

If history is any indication, as one viable career choice evaporates, others take its place, providing new ways to apply human ingenuity. However, some economists believe that the automation we will see in the next 15 years will spread across so many industries that it may have catastrophic effects on people’s ability to find jobs. We may roll our eyes at these Luddite mentalities, but this time really may be different. In a fascinating and citation-rich article, Zach Kanter recognizes the downsides of this level of automation, but remains optimistic:

Virtually all of these 10 million jobs will be eliminated within 10-15 years, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But despite the job loss and wholesale destruction of industries, eliminating the needs for car ownership will yield over $1 trillion in additional disposable income — and that is going to usher in an era of unprecedented efficiency, innovation, and job creation.

Paradoxically, the new efficiency, innovation, job creation is likely to come directly from people scrambling to adapt after losing jobs in the transportation industry. In a recent episode of the Exponent podcast, technology analyst Ben Thompson compared the societal shifts that may come with autonomous vehicles to those of the Industrial Revolution, when ubiquitous farming jobs were suddenly usurped by machinery:

If we get a robot to do the job of a person, we are still producing the exact same amount as before [in terms of GDP]. If anything, there’s a drag because that person now has to be provided for. But, when and if that person gets a new job, or a new skill, or creates a new sort of service that never existed before, that’s when the robot’s benefit is realized.

Thompson admits that the transition is likely to be slow and painful for many people, just like after the Industrial Revolution.

While downsides and job losses may indeed come hand-in-hand with vehicular automation, I believe the advance of technology is inevitable, and the new possibilities unlocked by electric driverless cars will prove too beneficial to ignore.

I wrote this article as a time capsule of my own speculation, and I do not pretend to be an expert on any subject presented in this article. Still, I would love your feedback: how might the future be different?

I’m an avid traveler hellbent on visiting more than 100 countries before I die. Nomadic since 2018. Designing things for the internet since 1997.

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