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Sunday, November 29, 2015

How Driverless Cars Change Will Our World

1930s Elevator Operator
When you hop on an elevator are worried that there is no elevator operator there to close the doors and guide the elevator to the floor that you want? Unless you just popped out of a time machine from 1930, you probably don't think twice about getting into an elevator and pressing a button and letting the elevator automatically taking you there.

Today, many people are concerned that driverless cars will not be as good or as safe a driver as a person. We think things like: Well, maybe it will be better than most drivers but certainly it won't be better than me because I am a far better driver than most people on the roads. The illusory superiority (that we all suffer) tells us that we're better than average, when in fact most of us fall within two standard deviations of average.

According to the Portland Herald Press "About 33,000 people die each year in auto accidents. In 80% of the cases the cause is alcohol, speeding, or a distracted driver." If you have been driving for any significant amount of time, I'm sure you can think of a time that you were tired or distracted and should not have been driving. Autonomous vehicles won't have any of these distractions. Given time, autonomous vehicles will be better than nearly every human driver on the road. You can argue how long it will take for the technology, regulations, and laws to advance, but for the sake of this article, let's assume that it's now 2040 and driverless cars are commonplace and people are just as comfortable with them as we are with elevators today. In this imagined future, if you want to see a manually operated car, you would have to go to vintage tracks or a car museum, where children will point at steering wheels and ask "What's that?".

Vintage Car
Assuming a future where vehicles are fully autonomous and fully trusted, how would our world change? How would it impact employment, traffic, car ownership, parking lots, suburbs, inner-cities, roadways, vehicles, vehicle ownership, home locations... Let's speculate.

Generation next will be as comfortable in autonomous cars
as we are in elevators.

Today, most cars are parked 22+ hours per day. Once you have an autonomous vehicle, why not put it to work when you aren't using it. It could operate in Uber or Lyft networks. It could run many of your daily errands, pick-up groceries, dry cleaning, etc.. It could be common to list the license plate number of your car on pick-up orders and have the business load items into the trunk. Of course the trunk will have connected streaming video cameras to make sure they don't take anything out that they shouldn't. Your car could even drive itself in for its maintenance appointments.

Many people have said that once we have autonomous vehicles, that there won't be any traffic congestion. This is not a certainty. If it is cheap and easy to send a vehicle out, they could end up driving many more miles. Another congestion-alleviating item that is often attributed to autonomous vehicles is that they will be able to travel significantly faster than human piloted vehicles. Again, this is debatable. Even with radar vision and nanosecond reaction time, the stopping distance depends on the vehicle weight, tires, and road conditions. Unless there is a radical vehicle redesign, these factors will not change significantly. This should limit any speed increase.

Speaking is radical redesign, vehicle trains are an item that could reduce future congestion. Next Design has an idea to create interlocking pods that allow vehicles to couple to vehicle trains on the fly. This could double the capacity of our roadways.

Swarming modular self-driving vehicle concept design by Next
As vehicles change from machines that we operate, to traveling domiciles, the interior space will change to meet our new needs. The first class seating area on a transcontinental flight might be a better model for future car interiors than the vehicles we drive today. Once we are no longer driving, travel time will be an opportunity to work, play, watch movies or TV, or to sleep and rest. There will be places to plug in our mobile devices, cameras for video chats, and windows that can be tinted when you want to sleep or to have privacy.

Intercontinental first class seating is a better model for future autonomous
vehicle interiors than the cars we drive today.

Lie-flat first-class intercontinental seating 
City center property is expensive. Today, out of necessity much of this high-value land is dedicated to parking. Once you have autonomous vehicles, they won't need to park near your work. Large parking areas, 5 or 10 miles from the city center, could ring the city. Parking would be significantly cheaper or free there. That is, assuming your car parks at all. Rather than parking, your car might spend its day available for hire and running errands as discussed above.

Rather than competing with public transportation, autonomous cars could be the first/last mile solution that makes public transportation accessible to many more people.

Rather than competing with public transportation, autonomous
cars could be the first/last mile solution that makes public
transportation accessible to many more people.

Assuming you have a job that requires you to be in the office occasionally, if you have a fully connected mobile office in your car, it might give telecommuting a new definition. Today, commute time is a drain on your time. If instead, commute time were productive, it could become a standard part of your work day. This might even mean that you could take a job that is farther from your home. Image projecting a telepresence (Skype/Facetime) into your office space that your coworkers could walk up to and then chat with you as your ETA is displayed and you are being shuttled to work.

What about people that drive for a living? I started this article discussing elevator operators. The people that once had this job found other ways to make a living. Today, in the U.S. more than 2.5 million people have driving jobs (1.7 million truck drivers, 650,000 bus drivers and 230,000 taxi drivers. This is about 2 percent of the U.S. workforce. The change will not happen overnight, so there won't be 2.5 million people put into unemployment all at the same time. However, a disruption is coming, so I would not encourage anyone to start a career as a driver today.

This is, of course, just speculation. It will be interesting to see what happens as the technology rolls out. Autonomous vehicles are coming, the question is how will we adapt to it.