The impact of self driving cars

2016-02-17 3 min read

    Nearly every major tech company is pursuing a self driving car future and it’s inevitable that at some point most cars on the road will be completely autonomous. Cheap and easy transportation is the immediate change but there will be massive secondary effects to the shapes of cities and society.

    A college professor used the example of the invention of the car to highlight these sort of effects - if told that cars would be successful most people could have guessed that they’d replace horses and clean up cities. But very few would have been able to predict the rise of highways which led to the development of suburbs and the current structure of the United States.

    Self driving cars have that same potential and it’s an interesting exercise to think through the impact. The short term is that fewer people will own cars, our roads will be safer, and that there will clearly be some disruption among the auto manufacturers. The medium and long term are where it gets tricky.

    The increases in safety will lead to faster cars which may lead to another shift in where people live. One idea is that people will be able to live further and further away from cities which will lead to a decline in suburbs with more people opting to live in more remote areas while also leading to a boost in urban living.

    Self driving cars will not just be ferrying people and one can imagine nearly everything being able to be delivered by self driving car or truck. I like the image of a “carrier truck” that drives around neighborhoods with a series of drones taking off and landing to deliver items along the way. In this sort of world there’s not a great need for physical stores. Taken to the extreme this means that cities will be designed to focus on the social elements. Convenience stores will disappear but restaurants will thrive. Most people aren’t buying everything online but I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

    Public transit will have to change. I worry that if the price of self driving cars drops low enough to appeal to most people but high enough to not be affordable by some it will lead to a decline in public transit. At that point since most people wouldn’t care about public transition it would end up in a self destructive loop as more and more people decide to go for the self driving car route which in turn leads to less and less funds being allocated to public transit.

    These are just scratching the surface and we’ll have to wait to see what happens.