Autonomous cars will change the way we live, no doubt about it, along with the way we think about cars and the way the car industry thinks about cars.
For the confluence of self-driving and electrification that will increasingly make driving like climbing into a four-wheeled cell phone will also likely cause our automobiles to get both more expensive and less emotional. This may accelerate the trend away from car ownership, something we hear the so-called Millenials don't share their parents' enthusiasm for, in favor of car-sharing.
With all the other emerging technologies competing for human mindspace and getting more, not less, diverting, as well as trippier and trippier, it is reasonable to assume that self-driving will draw cars further away from urgent consideration by future generations. To a growing segment of the population, actually owning, maintaining and insuring a car is already coming to be seen as an unnecessary bother and expense, better handled by car-share startups with lots of venture capital and some handy dandy algorithms. There's no reason to suppose that trend won't intensify.
Like it or not, the world is changing, folks; come 2030, save old timers, fetishists and kooks, who'll really want to take off the virtual reality goggles long enough to change their own oil? Electric cars don't even need oil, and even if they did, who needs the bother?
Once upon a time, owning your own car spelled an essential freedom, more precious even than the sacred American right to own your own military assault rifle. Not as much nowadays – and, in the decades ahead, car ownership may come to mean almost nothing. Of course, the carmakers don't talk about this, and they'd probably rather not think about it. They've always depended on perpetual increases in volume to keep the shareholders happy, something the successful ones have endeavored to achieve by working to make sure the newly mobile countries of the world (think China, Russia and India) move toward the current American standard of mobility, with roughly eight cars to serve every ten people, versus the one-in-eight common in these vast lands.
But even these seemingly huge untapped markets aren't always ripe for more cars. All else aside, they just won't fit. Places like Beijing and Shanghai are already completely oversaturated with automobile traffic, with jams that would upset the most grizzled Atlantans and battle-hardened Angelenos. Even after they shut down the bike lanes in these Chinese metropolises, they still can't accommodate all the automobiles they've already got.
So fewer cars would be a good idea for many urban areas, and self-driven ones might help reduce congestion. But so would mass transit, possibly even more so, and its costs are surely going to be in direct conflict with the trillions of dollars societies will spend to make autonomous driving possible.
I love cars more than most. Yet I happily concede the likely truth of many of the claimed advantages of autonomy – relatively lower fuel consumption, greater safety and reduced congestion. I get the appeal of machines that allow occupants to eat, drink and be merry in the backseat while their car drives them to the concert. I mean, who wouldn't prefer that to driving in traffic.
But the biggest problem with the move to autonomy is that the trillions upon trillions of dollars in government and taxpayer monies that will be diverted. Not just from maintaining and upgrading of our roads and infrastructure, and rebuilding what we've got, but from solutions that would keep people out of their cars and reduce traffic, rather than increase it. Not to mention what could be done were the money to be used to feed or care for the less fortunate.
There ought to be some reduction in accidents in this self-driven era, though we can't be certain how big the drop will be, as entirely new types of accidents will occur – for instance, the one where 1,200 cars simultaneously exit the Jersey Turnpike and all head at the same time for the same parking space outside the McDonald's in the Vince Lombardi rest area, killing 280. And we know the hacking possibilities will be rife, as will the criminal possibilities, and the dystopian ones, such as when the police override your commands and have your car drive you to the station for questioning about some impolitic thing you may have said or done. It'll be times like that when you really miss your old, stupid car that needed you to drive it.
Why isn't any government having this discussion with its people? Why is industry getting to call our shot into the future? Because the car companies, the tech companies, the telecoms and the marketers will profit from the hundreds of millions of captive car-bound folk and their data, their every movement geo-targeted, their every movement capable of being traced, quantified and sold. Why? Because that's the way we've always done it. Build first, ask questions later.