One Vision Of A Driverless Car Future: Eliminating Private Car Ownership

Most analysis of a driverless car future concentrates on the gains in safety: ‘robotic’ cars will adhere more closely to speed limits and other traffic rules and over a period of time, by eliminating human error and idiosyncrasies, produce a safer environment on our roads. This might be seen as an architectural modification of human driving behavior to produce safer driving outcomes–rather than making unsafe driving illegal, more expensive, or socially unacceptable, just don’t let humans drive.

But there are other problems–environmental degradation and traffic–that could be addressed by mature driverless car technologies. The key to their solution lies in moving away from private car ownership.

To see this, consider that at any given time, we have too many cars on the roads. Some are being driven, yet others are parked. If you own a car, you drive it from point to point, and park it when you are done using it. Eight hours later–at the end of an average work-day–you leave your office and drive home, park it again, and then use it in the morning. Through the night, your car sits idle again, taking up space. If only someone else could use your car while you didn’t need it. They wouldn’t need to buy a separate car for themselves and add to the congestion on the highways. And in parking lots.

Why not simply replace privately owned, human-driven cars with a gigantic fleet of robotic taxis? When you need a car, you call for one. When you are done using it, you release it back into the pool. You don’t park it; it simply goes back to answering its next call.  Need to go to work in the morning? Call a car. Run an errand with heavy lifting? Call a car. And so on. Cars shared in this fashion could thus eliminate the gigantic redundancy in car ownership that leads to choked highways, mounting smog and pollution, endless, futile construction of parking towers, and elaboration congestion pricing schemes. (The key phrase here is, of course, ‘mature driver-less car technologies.’ If you need a car for an elaborate road-trip through the American West, perhaps you could place a longer, more expensive hold on it, so that it doesn’t drive off while you are taking a quick photo or two of a canyon.)

Such a future entails that there will be no more personal, ineffable, fetishized relationships with cars. They will not be your babies to be cared and loved for. Their upholstery will not remind you of days gone by. Your children will not feel sentimental about the clunker that was a part of their growing up. And so on. I suspect these sorts of attachments to the car will be very easily forgotten once we have reckoned with the sheer pleasure of not having to deal with driving tests–and the terrors of teaching our children how to drive, the DMV, buying car insurance, looking for parking, and best of all, other drivers.

I, for one, welcome our robotic overlords in this domain.

3 comments on “One Vision Of A Driverless Car Future: Eliminating Private Car Ownership

  1. Nils says:

    Nice post. I think the next step of this vision is to think through what this would mean for various issues such as urban design (zoning), house design (no more need for barns to store big stinky pieces of personal industrial equipment, eg garages), reasonableness of commuting times (they might become *longer* once you no longer have to drive yourself, cf googlebi), transformation in energy mix (refueling electric vehicles in a public fleet much easier than doing at home), etc

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Nils, thanks for highlighting these other issues. I think the full ramifications of such a huge industry being so fundamentally reconfigured will take some time to be understood.

  2. Duh… we already have a vast fleet of shared cars… they are called taxis and, yes, ridiculously boring robot taxis could put tens and hundreds of non-robot drivers out of work. The writer of this piece is presumably rich enough not to have to worry whether other people have work. Oh, and I suppose he eats at the automat, buys gas at the full service station and uses the self-serve checkout at the supermarket. Anything to put as people as possible out of work in order to save a few cents for self.

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