Since I’m getting a lot of hits from marginal revolution readers, let me write down a few thoughts I’ve had for a while on a favorite topic there: driverless cars.
1. It will be a wonderful thing. Besides the 1.2 million killed per year (if that is something you want to shrug off with a Besides), driving is a major source of stress in people’s lives. For many, their commute is the absolutely worst part of their day. There are also a not-insignificant number of people who, for one reason or another, do not drive which limits their choices in all sorts of minor ways (which jobs they can take, where they can live, who they can meet socially…)
2. Regulatory issues will be solved. As I wrote, millions of people die in car crashes every year and so the idea that regulators will stop this technology is, even for me, who am not generally a big believer in the abilities of regulatory authorities, is too horrific to contemplate. It is an interesting reflection on the Great Stagnation that some people think that there may be technology to save a million lives per year (about twice as much as malaria), but our public regulators are so dysfunctional that they will stop it.
Of course, it’s a fallacy to assume that just because something is horrific, it will not happen. However, I have a bit more trust in the power of large corporations to obtain regulatory approval for their products than the pundits who argue this will be a stopping block. There are also intermediate steps that may be taken so that slowly the world moves from the current state to the new, better, driverless cars, state. The introduction of driverless trucks only on some roads is exactly one such step. In the same way, the liability issues will eventually be solved. Regulations may delay the introduction of driverless cars¹, but not stop it.
You just need a one or two jurisdictions to take that first step. It will probably be one of the most enlightened polities like Sweden, Singapore, or Nevada (the UK?). Then, slowly, the rest of the world will copy it.
3. (Human) driving will be illegal. Besides the fact that it kills so many, it will just be possible to have humans drive through intersections like this one. There won’t be any more need for traffic lights, no parking signs, &c If a city wants to cut off a specific street for construction work, or reroute traffic, just update the online map and broadcast it: the driverless cars will then know to avoid that street. So, pretty quickly it will become impossible for humans to drive the streets.
4. Driverless cars will change cities. They will enable much higher density. Have you ever driven through an empty large city in the middle of the night and felt amazed at how fast you got around without all the traffic? Even Manhattan could be crossed in less than half an hour from one end to the other. It will be like this all the time. Except that there may be second-order effects where even more people move into dense city centres. At the same time, streets can be narrower, parking can be taken off the street (just have the car drive you to your door and then go park itself somewhere far), so there is more buildable area. This line of reasoning leads us to expect much higher densities.
They will also enable much lower density. It is nice to live out in the country, but long commutes are horrible. But if the car is driving itself while you catch up on email or the blogs… This line of reasoning leads us to expect much lower densities and gigantic sprawl.
Maybe will get both: very dense city centres for the young and hip, with a huge suburban rings. Average density is over.
In reality, it’s hard to predict how all of these forces will play out as they push and pull in different directions. However, cities will probably not look the same at all.
5. Driverless taxis and mini-busses will be the future of public transport.
6. What is the time frame? Pretty soon, we’ll have to buy a new car for my wife. I don’t yet worry about the fact that eventually driverless cars will drive down [sorry] the resale value of driver-needed cars, but at some point, yes, this will happen.
However, for a city project, the time frame may be already close enough that any city starting a mass transit project should consider the possibility of driverless cars already. A new tram line whose planning is starting today may only open 10 or 15 years in the future. Is it really a good idea if the possibility of it being obsolete before it even opens is so real? This feels like trolling (imagine showing up at a public hearing and asking your city council what happens with driverless cars), but mass transit may just not make too much sense anymore.
7. It won’t be good for the environment. Yes, it’s possible to have more efficient cars, car sharing as the norm, &c. But lowering the cost of moving around so enormously will certainly make people move around more. Why not go visit someone who lives 1000 miles away on the week-end if the car can drive itself during the night. Fall asleep here, wake up there (without all the hassle of a public sleeping car in a train).
Perhaps if there is a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion, we can replace all the cars by fusion-charged electrics, but until that happens, the small gains in efficiency will most likely be outweighed by the increase in consumption.
¹ Thousands of people died in this sentence, maybe millions. Even a public hearing which delays decision a few weeks, will cause thousands of deaths. Note that this still happens even if the driverless car roll-out process is spread out over many years, so that the additional deaths do not happen in a one time event. It’s the way that regulatory agencies kill: they delay the introduction of life-saving technologies and the deaths caused are statistical and invisible.