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Driverless Cars Will Change More Than Driving Habits

by Chris Poindexter

It’s hard to believe but children born today might never know the adolescent rite of passage that is a driver’s license exam. For kids born today it will be close, a few may still steer the car themselves, but certainly their children will never pilot a car, unless it’s at an antique car show.

Driverless and autonomous cars are coming and at a speed that will surprise everyone. If you think driverless cars are still decades in the future, guess again. Think about where cell phones were in 1985. Across the entire country there were 340,000 cell phone subscribers. Cell phones were huge devices the size of a brick with a spare battery that weighed as much as a bowling ball. Today there are over 300 million cell phones in use across the country, just 30 years later. Today a phone weighs less than a paperback book, can operate for days on a single charge and has more processing power than all the computers on the space shuttle. Imagine that pace of technology being applied to your car.

Personally, I welcome our new car-driving robot overlords. Not everyone is as accepting of the new technology, just like there were people hesitant to sell their horses in the days of the first motor cars. For sure the revolution is off to a tentative start. Today the closest you can get to a self-driving car is intelligent cruise control, parking assist, automatic braking and crash avoidance. The next generation, already being rolled out, will include lane assist and other advancements that exercise more control over a car’s position on the road. That means we’re already on the doorstep of the last mile of self-driving technology, when cars become truly autonomous.

Already insurance companies are reporting a 14% to 15% reduction in crashes in cars outfitted with a basic forward warning system combined with automatic braking. Even when automatic braking failed to avoid an accident, it reduced the overall severity of the impact by cutting the forward speed of the car ahead of the crash.

Manufacturers Get It

Auto manufacturers are already on board with the trend, expecting self-driving car sales to number in the tens of millions by 2035. Automakers are not pushing ahead research on autonomous cars for any kind of altruistic motive; they’re following the money. Opposing a technology tide with that much financial inertia behind it is like trying to stop the wind.

Big Changes In Driving

Autonomous cars will mean big changes, both in terms of driving and automobile ownership. Today automobile utilization stands at a meager 5%, making it one of the least used resources you own. That means 95% of the time your car sits idle, costing you money while it rusts. The rise of services like Uber and Lyft are a direct result of technology supplying a means to capture some of the value of that 95% idle time. When cars become autonomous, then we’ll see the switch from paying for cars to paying for miles which, in some ways, is already happening. That change will disrupt the entire automotive industry, which has stayed relatively constant over the last 100 years.

Fewer people owning cars will mean fewer cars on the roads and a reduced need for major highway and road improvement projects. There will also be a big impact on jobs. Certainly Uber and Lyft drivers will be out of a job but so will truck drivers, some delivery drivers and cab drivers. If self-driving cars are coming soon, autonomous trucks are already being tested. There are nearly 2 million truck drivers on the road and self-driving trucks could wipe away more than half of those jobs.

There are bound to be more disruptions that we haven’t even considered yet. Like with any new technology, some things will be good, some not so good. I think we could all agree that modern cell phones made the world a better, safer place. That’s likely to be true for self-driving cars as we plunge into the next disruptive technology.

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