A friend just sent me an article about driverless cars. It was an academic ramble about behavior and society and a bunch of blah blah blah that the client probably paid a lot for.
When I started writing Six too many years ago, pods (a driverless vehicle) were the only means of transportation on my planet, Victoria. Driverless cars weren’t being discussed much in the not-too-distant past here on Earth, but they seem obvious and inevitable.
I’ve had my doubts about them–worries about privacy (data collection about where people are going, conversations being recorded, targeted ads being served based on those) and safety (solar flare knocks the AI offline and all the cars crash or the cars are maliciously hacked). Though I still worry about this, to my surprise I found myself vigorously arguing in favor of these cars when a friend of mine disparaged the idea.
“That will never happen!” he said contemptuously. “Driverless cars? No way. Too dangerous.” This came up, unbelievably, after he’d told me about a driverless subway line in Paris that was “perfectly safe.” ????
Though I am sure you, reader, are an excellent driver…there is the matter of ALL THOSE OTHER JERKS ON THE ROAD. You know, the people who change lanes without using a blinker. That tailgate. That drive in the middle of the night when they are tired or drunk. That run four-way stops and red lights. That rear end us and start a chain reaction that clogs up the freeway for hours.
People in the future are going to look back and think, wow, they had whole radio stations devoted to reporting on automobile accidents. How horrifying!
My grandmother was a terrible, reckless driver. When my dad was a kid he remembers flying forward and smashing his head against the metal dashboard–more than once. As she aged, she began to get into more and more accidents. I’m not sure how she kept her license. She finally stopped driving when she totaled her car in a crash that miraculously injured no one.
So, even if the navigation systems on the driverless cars aren’t perfect at first, I have confidence that engineers that can build space shuttles can build a car that can drive better than my grandmother or a drunk or that guy next to me on the freeway that is actually reading a book while piloting his vehicle.
And while I thoroughly enjoy road trips, which I take fairly often, most of my time in cars is spent in traffic less than 10 miles from home. The trips are stressful and frustrating. I don’t know if drivers in San Francisco are getting more reckless or I’m just sick of them, but getting to a friend’s house is a slalom around illegally double parked cars, people turning left on crowded roads, jaywalking pedestrians…
This is what I think we’ll see in the next 10 years. Cities or counties own fleets of driverless cars. We personally don’t own them, and aren’t financially responsible for any accidents that happen. The city has the insurance which is paid for as part of our monthly subscription fee. The cars rarely park. They cruise around, and when you call one, it will be at your house in less than five minutes. You likely never ride in the same one twice. Even if there are different classes of cars (to placate the rich) there will be nothing near the current social stratification we see now when people visibly own super expensive cars. It will be more like economy, business, and first class on planes. At the end of the day, we are all still on the same plane. And actually, if snobby people pay more for the “gold” cars, they will end up subsidizing the economy cars (and probably have to wait longer for one to come because there will be fewer.)
We won’t need driveways or parking lots anymore which will open up a whole bunch of real estate. In a city like San Francisco this will be huge. All existing garages converted to usable rooms, driveways can be more yard, or a place to build onto the house. Retail parking spaces become wider sidewalks and bike lanes, small green belts. Big parking lots can be more housing, more retail, more parks. This will be a huge shot in the arm financially for a small business owner who can suddenly sell a 1000 square foot lot.
As far as safety, in a dense city the cars may drive slowly as the system learns, 20 mph or less tops, but we will get places faster because when the light turns green, all the cars will go at once and cars won’t be parked illegally blocking traffic.
Will we still retain our right as Individuals and Americans to take our annual road trip? Of course! Trust capitalism. If we will pay for it, it will happen. I suspect we won’t be able to plan our exact routes in crowded urban areas, but if you want to go on a two-week trip through the southwest, you’ll be able to tell the car exactly where you want to go.
I could go on and on as you can tell, but the main things I’m sure of? Traffic deaths and accidents will decrease dramatically. Old people who couldn’t get around before will now have more freedom and not be isolated from society. Parents won’t spend their lives driving their kids to soccer practice.
Yes, we will continue to have to fight to retain our rights and privacy in an increasingly connected world, but that’s already an issue. As it is our every movement can be tracked by our cell phones and Facebook, Google and the NSA are scanning our emails, so when we give the driverless car the address of a restaurant and it starts showing us ads from the competition? Well, that already happens (and is something we need to deal with).
The new system won’t be perfect, but it is going to drive a hell of a lot better than my grandmother did, I’m sure of it.