Until relatively recently, the idea of society abandoning cars that people have to control themselves in favor of driverless vehicles seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Sure, we've been promised Jetson-style flying cars since at least the 1950s, and that hasn't happened yet, but the idea of hopping into a vehicle and just relaxing with a book (Just kidding! "Books" will probably also be phased out in favor of electronic reading devices) while the car drives itself to our destination didn't seem likely either.
The technology is being developed and tested in real world applications though, and it seems reasonable to expect widespread use of driverless vehicles to become the norm over the next few decades. What kind of effects on our society might that transition create? Let's take a look at a few possibilities.
8. Fewer People Will Choose To Own Cars.
Many projections on how driverless cars will effect our habits seem to indicate that fewer people will actually buy one, and will instead use them in similar ways to how we currently use taxi services. Its likely that driverless cars will be expensive, especially at first, before they completely replace manually driven vehicles. What is probable in such a scenario is that people will use them on an "as needed" basis, perhaps using the Internet to order one to pick them up wherever they are, and being charged by the mile. There may be services that provide driverless transportation in such a manner, allowing for charges dependent on a person's needs - charging less if a person chooses to share their lift with another customer, for instance. It's not out of the question that such services will be preferred over ownership by many, providing a less expensive way to get around without many of the disadvantages of currently available mass transit options. Far fewer young people are choosing to learn how to drive now, anyway, and it's possible that the idea of car ownership could dramatically change with the introduction of driverless technology. This would also dramatically effect mass transit and taxi services, probably killing the latter entirely.
7. Traffic Accidents Will Largely Disappear.
Traveling by automobile is one of the most dangerous things most of us do routinely. Auto accidents are currently one of the leading causes of injury and death in this country, and in most cases the causes of an accident are a distracted or impaired driver. While the current driverless technology being tested still requires someone who can pilot the vehicle in case of certain problems arising, eventually that may not be the case, and future vehicles may offer an entirely driverless experience. Had too many drinks? Calling up a driverless car will eliminate the danger of drunk driving, and will also allow people to text away without being irresponsible creeps. Will such a system ever be so perfect that auto accidents are completely eliminated? Probably not, but they will be dramatically reduced, especially those caused by drunk driving, distracted drivers, road rage, or other dangerous driver behaviors. Because of this, one effect of driverless cars will be...
6. Owning An Old Fashioned Car Will Become A Lot More Expensive.
Driving conventional cars will probably eventually be phased out almost entirely, and become an expensive hobby reserved for parades. Why?
Insurance costs will soar for those who want to keep driving older vehicles.
When traffic accidents are decreased by widespread use of driverless cars, all communicating with each other and adjusting to changing traffic conditions faster than a human can, cars driven by people are going to become the obvious dangerous variable on public roads. Insurance companies will respond to that by dramatically raising insurance premiums on cars that are driven by people. Eventually, those rising costs will lead many people to abandon driving old fashioned cars. The government may make the choice more compelling by imposing stricter (and more expensive) safety restrictions for allowing conventional vehicles to share the road with driverless ones. It might be decades before this happens, but it is probably just a matter of time. It will also lead to...
5. Car Culture Will Either Dramatically Change Or Be Destroyed.
I love cool old cars. I own a 1967 GTO, a 1976 Chevy Van, and a 1974 Cadillac Hearse. I understand car culture, and why so many of us like our cars. Houston is a city largely built on America's post World War II love affair with the automobile, sprawling for miles and miles in every direction, without a truly great mass transit system. It's hard to get by without a car here, and lots of people identify closely with their vehicles. A lot of us grow up liking cars and the things they can do, and there's definitely a romance with performance and speed, especially among young people. Or there used to be. As noted previously, a lot of kids are choosing not to even get a driver's license anymore. Still, enough people like cars and the culture that goes along with them. And that will probably change when driverless cars become the norm, and even owning your own vehicle isn't seen as necessary anymore. All of the older desirable vehicles will either become way too expensive for the average person to drive, or will end up in private collections and museums. How much fun will it be to fantasize about hot-rodding a car you don't even drive, much less own? I'm guessing people will mostly find other interests to replace their love affair with cool cars.
4. Many More People Will Opt To Ride Bicycles And Motorcycles.
This is just a guess of mine, but I'm going to predict that a lot more people will begin to commute via bike or motorcycle. Why? Well, riding a bike in Houston can be a dangerous activity, mostly due to terrible and aggressive drivers. Almost any conversation on the topic will inspire angry responses like "Roads are for cars, not bicycles," which is patently untrue, and also illustrates the mindset of a lot of drivers. Motorcyclists have long known that the biggest threat to their continued safety on the road are people that drive their cars like creeps. However, after most automobiles are driverless, riding on two wheels may become a lot less risky, making it safer for people who choose to do so. As car ownership becomes more expensive, the same things that are attractive about car culture may shift to bike or motorcycle owners. They may become some of the few affordable modes of transportation that most people can own and customize. Who knows?
3. People Will Have More Time For Other Activities.
Many of us spend hours out of every week stuck driving along in traffic. I'm sure it would be depressing for many of us to tally up the amount of time we're wasting commuting from place to place, when we'd rather be coasting along the Internet instead of I-10. With driverless commutes, more of us will be able to do just that, or any number of other activities that would be incredibly dangerous to engage in while driving. Being shuttled along without having to drive would allow people the opportunity to enjoy writing their novel or perusing Facebook without being a potentially deadly threat to themselves and all the other cars around them. In short, a driverless car trip could actually be relaxing instead of a chore most of us tolerate but don't enjoy.
2. Older People Will Be Able To Maintain Freedom Longer.
One of the eventualities that most people face as they get older is a dreaded lack of freedom brought on by the process of aging. Anyone who has had to take away an elderly parent's car knows exactly what I mean. This is not something many people look forward to, even when safety is the issue. However, driverless cars will nullify most of the reasons that older people have to quit driving. Failing eyesight or other senses aren't a factor when you don't have to pilot your own vehicle. And it's not just older people this would affect. Kids who are old enough to leave the house without direct adult supervision, but who are too young to legally drive would also be able to travel from place to place in a driverless car, as would people suffering from many conditions that make driving their own cars impossible. Some people will complain that a shift towards driverless vehicles would remove certain freedoms, but for a whole lot of other people the opposite will be true.
1. Driverless Cars Will Change Certain Criminal Activities.
We've all seen countless high speed police chases on television or perhaps even on the roads we are driving on. Cars are currently involved in all sorts of criminal activities, because they're under the control of an individual, and can be used as that person sees fit. If that person is the type of moron who likes to get drunk and then lead the police in a dangerous high speed chase, then that's entirely possible. Let's face it, the current technology cops have to stop another speeding car are problematic at best.
But that will change with driverless cars. First, they will be loaded with GPS and other technologies that log where they've been driven, so that will probably make certain kinds of police investigations more foolproof. Claiming that you were at church and not Eddie the speed freak's neighborhood meth lab probably won't fly very far if the cops want to check your cars tracking log. This poses questions about rights to privacy, but is a likely scenario.
People who have a lead foot and like to speed? They are probably out of luck, since the car will be making decisions like how fast it can safely navigate specific road conditions. Of course the flip side of not being able to speed will be that police won't be able to ticket people for driving too fast anymore. Combined with far fewer DUI arrests, that will greatly affect many levels of policing. Small towns and police agencies that depend on revenue from moving violations will be largely out of luck, which is good, if your town depends on speed traps to survive, it deserves to die.
But back to that high speed chase scenario. That'll be largely a thing of the past, because it's almost certain that driverless vehicles will have built in technology that allows law enforcement groups the ability to kill the engine remotely, or to have the vehicle simply pull itself over. Hard to rob a liquor store and speed off in a cloud of dust evading arrest, when the car won't speed and the all the cops have to do is type in a code to pull your ass over.
The widespread adoption of driverless cars will affect our society on many fundamental levels, and these are just a few of them. Some of these changes may be embraced and others resisted, but driverless vehicles seem to be on the horizon, and the future is coming whether we like it or not.