The following is an essay about the potential ways in which self-driving or autonomous cars will shape our future.
New modes of transportation have always had a large impact on the shape of our cities and the way we live our lives. Arguably, nothing has impacted society more than the invention of the automobile. Not only did it allow people to get around with more ease and convenience than ever before, it also changed our physical landscape (Brancheau et al.). Mostly notably it led to the millions of paved roads we have today, and the abundance of suburbs (National Museum of American History).
With advancements in research and technologies, it is becoming more apparent that we could be on the brink of another transport revolution, in the form of the self-driving car (Chen 2015). This essay defines driverless cars as automobiles that require little to no human intervention in order transport passengers to their desired destination. That is to say, cars that can drive themselves. This essay will not discuss the likelihood of these self-driving cars but will instead outline a future where they are not only the norm but have actually replaced all cars.
To begin, it’s probably best to outline some of the relevant technologies that will be incorporated into these self-driving cars. It is predicted that self-driving cars will run using an extremely advanced computer system, which will allow them to complete complicated calculations and predictions. It is also predicted that these self-driving cars will function on a large interconnected network (Manzalini 2015). This network will allow every car on the road to be aware of and communicate with each other. Petrol is also expected to be a thing of the past, with all future cars predicted to be running on electricity, not just because it is more environmentally friendly, but also in order to power all of the onboard devices that allow the self-driving cars to function.
It must also be noted, that as we are discussing the future, it must be remembered that these self-driving cars do not exist in a technological bubble. While automobile technology increases, so too will the technology in every other aspect of our lives. It is impossible to predict the technological innovation that will coincide with self-driving cars, but it must be assumed that they are not the only thing that will advance.
It must also be mentioned, that this essay is talking about the future of automobiles in developed countries, particularly centred around cities and suburbs.
This essay will mostly focus on how self-driving cars will change our lives socially, and change our cities physically.
One of the most obvious social changes that will be brought about by self-driving cars, is the mobility it will bring to those members of society who currently can’t drive. The elderly and disabled, are two groups of society that currently may find it extremely difficult to get where they want to be. Employment is a particular area that disabled people struggle with, and a big part of that is physical access to places of work (Polonetsky & Claypool 2016). Currently all that is available to non-driving individuals is a taxi service or public transport. Taxis can become a very expensive way of getting around, and public transport can often be hard to get to. Self-driving cars have the capacity to safely transport otherwise incapable people from their place of residence to any location. This is extremely import for those who need to access medical care that can be hard to get to.
Self-driving cars would also be beneficial to individuals who temporarily cannot drive, such as people who are intoxicated (Manna 2016). Without even the possibility of driving themselves, people too drunk to drive would have a safe way of getting to their destination without putting other drivers at risk. And of course, people currently considered too young to drive would be able to travel safely, without the need for a parent or guardian to be present (Zakharenko 2016).
With almost a third of people employed in Sydney having a commute time of over 90 minutes (Tabakoff 2016), so much time is potentially wasted in cars. Not having to control a car means that individuals on their daily commute could use their time much more effectively, completing tasks that require more of their attention than they can currently give whilst driving. This is reflected in the self-driving car prototype released by Mercedes a few years ago (Motavalli 2015). Mercedes’ prototype contained front seats that were able to swivel in order to face other passengers, indicating self-driving cars could allow for different types of activities and socialisation.
Self-driving cars could not only change the nature of our travel time but also greatly reduce it. It is predicted that vehicle automation could result in 80% fewer cars on the road (Lubell 2016), which would mean much less congestion and much quicker travel time.
One of the biggest impacts that self-driving cars would have, would be on emergency service vehicles. With all self-driving cars connected on a network, all cars on the road could be notified that there is an emergency vehicle approaching. Because of the nature of the network, all other cars would be able to know the exact timing and route of the emergency vehicle, meaning that a path could be made at exactly the right moment in order for the emergency vehicle to pass. Self-driving cars could also use their powerful inbuilt computational system in order to calculate the exact speed needed to reach a destination in enough time, while still not putting any passengers at risk.
Another change to emergency services would be the role the police play on our roads. No longer wold police have to allocate resources to monitoring motorists speed, as self-driving cars would be able to calculate what the exact right safe speed is. Speeding tickets would be a thing of the past, as would dangerous high-speed pursuits of stolen cars. With the amount of time and resources police currently spend on road safety, their efforts could be redistributed into other areas.
Of course, not all impacts of self-driving cars would be entirely positive. Self-driving cars means there would no longer be a need for paid drivers. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, garbage collectors, and truck drivers would quickly lose their jobs as companies look to self-driving cars as a way to cut costs. This cost cutting could in turn have a positive effect on consumers, as it would reduce transportation costs, which could in turn reduce the cost of many products.
But self-driving cars may in fact create new jobs. Maybe jobs will arise such as a ride along concierge of sorts, to assist with luggage or accompany children. Self-driving cars would also change the nature of mechanics, forcing them to become well versed in coding, and computer repair. Many people currently trained in information technology roles could be employed in the automotive sector.
Self-driving cars could also have a large negative impact on car enthusiasts, for many reason. Firstly, car enthusiasts wouldn’t have anywhere to drive their cars, because in order for a self-driving car network to work efficiently, all cars on the road will be self-driving. Car maintenance would also become very expensive, as it is predicted that self-driving cars would run on batteries, making petrol extremely hard to buy and probably expensive (Hoffman 2016). It is also predicted that individuals would no longer own their own car but instead call a car as needed, similar to the way taxis currently function (Kelion 2015). Because of this, cars could become extremely expensive to own.
With no one owning their own car, this would completely change the physical landscape of our cities. With cars constantly in such high demand, many self-driving cars would constantly be driving and only having to stop to pick up and drop off passengers. In off peak times it is predicted that the self-driving cars may go to large scale parking complexes to wait until they are next needed (Lubell 2016). Because people are being picked up and dropped off by self-driving cars, car parks would no longer be needed at popular destinations, such as shopping centres. This means that most of the space currently dedicated to parking could be reconfigured into something else. This is also true of houses and residential buildings with garages. If individuals no longer own their own car they could use the space that previously held their car for whatever they wanted (Lubell 2016). This model could also allow people to potentially save hundreds of dollars a year currently spend on parking.
The advent of self-driving cars would also have an effect on where we live. With travel becoming cheaper and quicker, residential areas would greatly expand outwards, causing a larger spread of our cities and suburbs (Zakharenko 2016).
Self-driving cars would also change the landscape of our roads. With self-driving cars always driving at an optimal speed, traffic slowing devices, such as speed humps, would no longer be needed. Also no longer needed would be traffic lights in the way we currently have them. As mentioned previously, self-driving cars would all be wired into a network which would allow them to communicate. This, combined with their advanced computational power would allow calculations to be made over the network which would make traffic lights redundant. Self-driving cars would know, not only where every car on the road currently is, but also where they will be. This ability to plan entire journeys, and its variables, means that accidents are avoided before the car has even started to drive.
Above anything else, the key to self-driving cars’ success is the limitation of human involvement. A nearly perfect system can be created that would revolutionise so many aspects of our lives, but only if people are willing to give up the idea that they know best. An example of something very similar to self-driving cars is auto-pilot in commercial flights. Every single day individuals board flights that are nearly entirely controlled by computers, and yet if the human pilots were not present many people would be more apprehensive about flying. This is ironic, as many aircraft accidents have in fact been caused by pilots either not trusting information given to them by the on-board computer or by turning off their auto-pilot completely (Langewiesche 2014).
In order for self-driving cars to truly be integrated into our society, a large shift must take place in the social consciousness. Perhaps bigger than any other changes that self-driving cars would bring, people need to learn to trust computers to be able to know what is safest, even if it feels counterintuitive to its passengers. We are currently stuck in a paradoxical situation where most people don’t believe self-driving cars to be safe, but in order for them to be as safe as possible, all cars would need to be self-driving cars.
Another current limitation to self-driving cars is legislation and insurance. Having no driver means that in the case of an accident it is difficult to decide who should take the blame. Should it be the owner of the car, or if the car has no owner, should it be the company that made it?
Overall, self-driving cars are already becoming a reality. Companies such as Google, Tesla and Uber all already have self-driving cars driving around the US, with more companies joining them every day. Although it would seem self-driving cars are already here, we are still quite far off self-driving cars being the norm. But when they are eventually everywhere they will revolutionize the way we get around, and the way we design our cities.
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