Perhaps it’s the fact that people have a hard time imagining just how autonomous cars will operate that causes their trepidation. Just as the first Model T bears little resemblance to the cars we know today, the autonomous cars of tomorrow will look considerably different than those we see today. As the cars change, so will the ways in which they are used. So how will the driverless car change the world, exactly?
The End of Traffic
By removing the least reliable aspect of driving from the equation, which just happens to be the driver, the speed and safety of commuting improves dramatically. The reason lies in how traffic works; rather than simply being the end result of too many cars, traffic jams start in fact with the drivers.
Here’s how it works: If one person in front of a long line of cars taps the breaks, so does everyone else following behind. As each person brakes, each car gets slightly slower than the one in front of it until eventually they must all stop. This is the reason why traffic jams tend to increase at bends in the road, as people braking during a turn send ripple effects backwards.
With driverless cars, this ceases to be a problem. Syncing the flow of traffic on the road in the same way that airline traffic is currently controlled would mean that every maneuver by all other cars is not only instantly accounted for, but meticulously choreographed.
As a result, commuting becomes both faster and, more important, safer. Not only does the likelihood of car accidents plummet, but so do your insurance premiums. With driverless cars, the need for insuring the vehicles themselves would be removed entirely; only the passengers themselves would require some form of insurance. Why? Because the car of the future will not just be autonomous, it will be shared.
The Shared Vehicle
One of the more ingenious advantages to a world of seamlessly choreographed driverless cars is less obvious than some may think. In addition to ending traffic, autonomous cars will redefine both car ownership and mass transit entirely by doing away with single-occupancy vehicles.
Currently, 76 percent of all drivers travel in their cars alone during their daily commute. Given that the average daily commute is 13.9 miles, and the average fuel economy of a car today is 24.6 miles per gallon, one commuter drives 7,228 miles to and from work in a year, and therefore has an annual carbon footprint of 6,214 lbs of carbon dioxide.
Clearly, a good thing to do for the environment is to reduce the number of people using single-occupancy vehicles in favor of carpools and mass transit, so why don’t we do that now? Regarding why people continue to use single-occupancy vehicles rather than mass-transit, Cliff Kuang described what he called the “last-mile problem“:
“It isn’t the mere lack of trains and subways that keep people in their cars. It’s what urban planners call the first- and last-mile problem. You know it, intuitively. Let’s say you’d like to commute on public transit. But if you live in a suburb – and ever since 2000, over half of Americans do – it’s unlikely that you live close enough to a station to walk. The same problem arises once you get to your destination: You probably don’t work anywhere near the closest bus or train station. So even if public transit is available, commuters often stay in their cars because the alternative – the hassle of driving, then riding, then getting to your final destination – is inconvenient, if not totally impossible.”
The car of the future would represent a solution to both the problem of heavy car traffic and the “last mile problem” inherent in public transport by combining personal vehicles and mass transit into one mode of transportation. In a system in which all transportation is automated, the need for purchasing your own car evaporates.
So rather than all of us owning our own cars like we do today, cars would be used like ZipCar, in which people are only in possession of the car when they need it. It would arrive at your door, drive you where you need to go while you sit back and relax, drop you off and then leave to go pick up someone else. It’s estimated that sharing one car removes up to 15 cars from the road. In this future we would have cut back on traffic, pollution, and the need for parking.
A Greener Tomorrow
Aside from the obvious ecological advantages inherent in there being fewer cars on the road in terms of air pollution, replacing single-occupancy vehicles with a network of shared, autonomous cars presents another chance: the end of parking lots.
If you take a look around your average city, you’d be hard-pressed to go more than a few feet without seeing a car. Most of them, however, aren’t even driving. 90% of all cars in the world are parked at any given moment, and they’re taking up quite a bit of space.
With the autonomous driving network described above, in which cars are no longer owned but shared communally as a kind of bus-cab hybrid, the need for parking spaces and garages also disappears. The result? A lot more free space.
Modern cities have been designed specifically to accommodate the car, much at the expense of greenery and even urban density. As more people lead to more cars, larger streets are therefore required, and inevitably, less space is then available to house those people. Eliminating parking gives urban planners a litany of new opportunities for “re-greening” their cities, including the creation of sprawling green boulevards lined with trees, or replacing parking garages with parks.
When you put it all together, the effects of driverless cars seem almost entirely positive. By 2040, roadways will be safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly. It may seem like a lofty goal, but experts believe that this vision isn’t just necessary, it’s all but inevitable.