Fleets of self-driving cars will one day dominate our roads. They will greatly reduce road accidents, save many lives, be very socially inclusive and greatly improve mobility for the poor, the old and frail. They will save us money and help the environment, and provide useful synergy with the renewable energy industry. They will reduce the need for car parking and help rejuvenate our cities and towns. But, they will destroy the domestic car industry, reduce the pleasure many get from driving, and increase government’s ability to monitor and control our lives. The balance of benefits and costs as always will depend on the technical competence of our government, but only the most idiotic of governments could prevent this bringing huge benefits overall.
The state of Nevada has granted licenses for self-driving cars with California set to follow:
It is long-established in lab conditions that computers are able to drive cars, and for a few years now, Google have had experimental ones out on the streets to prove it in the real world, successfully. This extended licensing brings it close to the final hurdle. Soon, we will see lots of cars on the roads that drive themselves.
There are many obvious advantages in letting computers drive. Humans typically react at around 250ms. Some faster, some slower. That is thousands of times slower than we expect of machines. Machines can also talk to each other extremely quickly, and it would be very easy to arrange coordination of braking and acceleration among lines of cars if desired. High speed reaction and coordination allows a number of benefits:
Computer-driven cars could drive just millimetres apart. This would reduce drag, improving environmental footprint, and since there can’t be a significant speed differential, so gives very limited scope for damage if the cars collide. There can also be more lanes, since we wouldn’t need huge gasp between cars sideways because of low human skill, and lanes can be assigned for either direction of flow according to circumstances. It also increases greatly the number of cars that can fit along a stretch of road, and ensures that they can be kept moving much more smoothly. So cars could be safer and more efficient and get us there faster.
However, we only get the greatest benefits if we allow a high degree of standardisation of control systems, road management, vehicle size and speed. Drivers would have little control of their journey other than specifying destination. We could allow some freedom, but each degree of freedom reduces benefits elsewhere. Automated cars could mix with human driven ones but the humans would slow the system down and reduce road usage efficiency considerably. So we’d be far better off going the full way and phasing out human-driven cars.
If we have little control of our cars, and they are all likely to be standardised, and if they can drive themselves to you on request, and you can just abandon them once you arrive, then there is very little point in owning your own. It is extremely likely that we will move towards a system where large fleets of cars are owned and run by fleet management companies or public transport companies, and obviously these are likely to overlap considerably. This would result in better social inclusiveness. Older people who rely on public transport because they can’t drive, might also find it hard to walk to a bus stop. If a car can collect them from their front door, it would improve their ability to taker an active part in life for longer. If we don’t own our cars, and they just go off and serve someone else once we have arrived, then we won’t need as many cars, nor the need for all the parking spaces they use. We could manage with a few centralised high-efficiency storage spaces to store the surplus during low demand. All the spare car parks, garages and home driveways could be used for other things instead that would improve our life quality, such as more green areas or extra rooms in our homes, or more brown field development space.
Energy storage for wind or solar power is made easier if we have large numbers of electric cars. Even though we would eventually make direct energy pick-up in most roads, via inductive loops and super-capacitors, cars would still need small batteries once they leave the main roads. So there is good potential synergy between energy companies and car owners.
All the automation requires that the fleet companies have some sort of billing systems, so they know who has been where. This potentially also allows government to know who has been where and when, another potential erosion of privacy. Standardisation would favour some parts of the car industry against others, but since we would need a lot fewer cars, the entire car industry would shrink. But I think these problems are not too high a price for such great benefits, in this case. Cars are essential, but they sap a great deal of our income, and if we have a better and cheaper way of meeting the same needs, then we can spend the savings on something more fruitful, and that will stimulate business elsewhere. So overall, the economy should benefit rather than suffer.
So, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and automated cars will bring a few problems, but these problems will be greatly outweighed by very large benefits. We should head down this path as fast as we can.