5 ways that self-driving cars will change our lives

Google's self-driving car on a closed course.
(Image from Wikipedia.)
If you haven't been living under a rock, you've seen the impressive progress in self-driving cars, with a lineage tracing from CMU, to Stanford, and now Google, whose self-driving cars have logged 300,000 miles without an accident.  Far better than, e.g., the author of this post has managed.

It's obvious that self-driving cars can help reduce accidents, improve commute times, and let us get back to texting while on our way to work without killing people.  But I think the implications are far, far deeper, particularly for the car-centric US.  I had fun brainstorming about it last weekend - can you add to this list?

[Update:  Kent Lewin pointed out that I've unwittingly overlapped a few of these items, particularly the first, with a recent "this week in google" podcast.  Doh.  Oh well - I had fun with the brainstorming anyway! :-) ]

They will enable the car-sharing economy

There's been a lot of effort lately in car-sharing, from what I'd call company-capitalized (a single company owns lots of cars) models such as Zipcar, to owner-capitalized efforts such as Go-Op, which lets owners rent their car out by the hour.  However, none of these are as popular as they could be.  Owner-capitalized services have been running into trouble with insurance agencies.  Owners may be legitimately nervous about the idea of letting random strangers drive their car.  Zipcar's value is inversely proportional to how far you are from the nearest parked car.

Self-driving cars fix a lot of those problems.  Rent a car online, and it shows up at your doorstep when you want it (or picks you up at the curb at your destination airport).  No risk of a renter crashing your car in a peer-to-peer model.

In the U.S., at least, it's likely that many people will still choose to own cars, for convenience, personalization, status, and preferences.  Or because they drive enough that their TCO is lower if they front the capital.  But self-driving cars will add many more options to the mix.

They will radically change children's access to transportation

While kids growing up in New York are used to being able to get anywhere on the subway, that's not the case everywhere.  I grew up in Salt Lake City, whose public transit system is not always optimal, a trait it shares with many larger, sprawling western cities.  And, let's face it, it requires a little more care and planning to hop on a bus than it does to have your parents drop you somewhere.  But self-driving cars could change all of that, giving medium-urban and suburban kids the kind of flexibility they should envy in their big apple compatriots.

Parents in some demographics spend an enormous amount of time shuttling their kids around.  With luck, this could enable a little less chauffering and a little more quality time for everyone.  Or, less happily, it could just cut out one chunk of parent-child time in the day;  but regardless, it could substantially change the daily patterns of a family.

They will change the way you shop and run errands

Of course, we've already seen the shift to Amazon, but consider their most recent adventure:  Amazon Delivery Lockers.  Don't have a great way to have your stuff shipped to your house?  Pick it up from the store down the street instead.  Now, add your self-driving car to the mix:

Order from Amazon.  Head to work.  While you're there, your car drives out to the nearest Amazon pick-up location, where an employee loads your delivery into the trunk.  Car comes back to pick you up from work, you get home, and there's your stuff.  This takes advantage of the dual use of the car as both transport and storage, and could overhaul all of our shopping, not just from big online retailers.

Say goodbye to routine maintenance... and most gassing-up.

Assuming we're still on gas at that point.  Your car might politely ask your permission to run to the shop during work or overnight, but you won't ever have an excuse to be behind on your maintenance.  And you'll probably never see a gas station except during long trips, because your car will already have looked at your expected driving schedule for the week and visited the fill-up station itself.

They will commoditize parking into an efficient market

For starters, we'll be able to substantially increase parking density using valet-style packing.  When it's time for your car to get out of that second row, it'll just ask the car behind it to move.

But that's pedestrian, no pun intended.  Because your car will simply drop you off at the front door to your office (unless you've chosen to drop off a distance away to get some exercise - good on you), who cares where it parks?  What used to be a big convenience question becomes something mechanical, trading off distance (cost+response time) and cost.  Computers are good at this kind of thing:  Your car will just contact the regional parking broker, find out the bid prices for spots near you, and select one that best optimizes for your preferences.

I'm sure I've missed some things here, but I think we're in for a wild ride - once we can overcome the very substantial technical, legacy, and political issues on the road to self-driving cars.


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