Though self-driving cars used to be science fiction fantasies, they are now likely to be part of our not-too-distant future and have the potential to re-shape our society, similar to the impact of agriculture, the industrial revolution, or the internet. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to change how we approach ownership and reshape our cities, improve welfare and accessibility and increase safety.
Shift from individual car ownership to shared ownership
Despite existing car sharing solutions, such as taxis, carpooling, and car rentals, many adult individuals currently own a car. In 2015, there were an estimated 263 million cars in the United States. That’s almost 1 car for every adult. Additionally, in 2017 Americans spent nearly $2 trillion on car related costs (including fuel, maintenance and insurance), more than they spent on food that year.
Unfortunately, the average vehicle is only used 4% of the time and remains parked for the other 96%. Autonomous cars, enable vehicles to be used more efficiently, by allowing them to be continuously used over the course of a day to transport multiple groups of people. For example, in the morning an autonomous vehicle could be used to take students to school and adults to work. Afterwards, that autonomous vehicle could be used to drive tourists to landmarks, take the elderly to the doctors, and help people run errands. Then in the evening the autonomous car can help students and adults return home. Because these vehicles will be in constant use, there will be less use for parking spaces. In the US there is an estimated 700 million parking spaces, which take up more than 6,000 square miles, that could be transformed into parks, shops, and housing.
More efficient use of vehicles will also decrease the total number of cars needed. Fewer vehicles also means less traffic, especially since autonomous vehicles can communicate with each other. This enables them to driver faster and closer together, which also allows people to get to their destinations faster.
Since these vehicles are shared, it is likely that most autonomous vehicles, will not be owned by people, but instead owned by business who rent to individuals on a pay-as-you-go basis. Experts estimate that this will still be cheaper for most individuals since they no longer have to buy, fuel or repair their own cars.
Improved welfare and accessibility
A major benefit of autonomous cars is that commuting hours can be used for other tasks such as leisure or work. Instead of the stress associated with being stuck in traffic, drivers could read, talk with friends / family, surf the internet or even sleep.
Autonomous vehicles will also increase accessibility of travel for people who otherwise could not drive, such as people with epilepsy, people with poor vision, or others with impairments.
According to the World Health Organization, there were approximately 1.25 million road traffic deaths in 2013.
Currently, a leading cause of preventable deaths is road accidents. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1.25 million pedestrian, cyclists, motorcyclists, and car occupants were killed by traffic deaths in 2013. Driverless vehicles can minimize deaths and injuries due to human errors such as distracted driving and aggressive driving, saving millions of lives and billions of dollars in damages and healthcare costs annually.
So is it all good?
It is likely that many people will lose their jobs as autonomous vehicles become more mainstream. This includes drivers as well as people involved in the production of cars. In the US, this is an estimated 4 million driver jobs and another 3 million jobs in the production and sales of cars.
In the past, whenever technology has displaced jobs, new jobs and industries have also been created, such as designing and maintaining the autonomous vehicles, both hardware and software, but the transition for workers who lose their jobs can be difficult.
Multiple companies, including major technology companies and major car manufacturers, are working on autonomous driving technology, but the road to full adoption of autonomous vehicles still has some barriers.
Currently, the cost of equipment to make autonomous cars truly functional is still in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the technology is not fool proof, especially in difficult driving conditions like at night or in rain. There are also still barriers to broad adoption including individual preferences, ethical debates and political regulation.
However, many experts expect autonomous vehicles to starting appearing on the roads in the 2020s