Our Driverless Future

Google expects the public will be using their driverless cars within two to five years. And there appears to be high demand:

According to a study, as many as 12 million driverless cars—that’s 10% of annual sales of new vehicles—could hit the world’s roads just twenty years from now.

But Emily Badger is unsure how driverless technology will change the auto market:

Here are just two competing theories: Autonomous cars will reduce car ownership, because we’ll simply be able to order them when we need them, and they’ll come to function as shared assets akin to public transit. Alternatively: Autonomous cars will increase car ownership because, as the utility of each vehicles rises (now you can send your 7-year-old to ballet alone!), people will want to own even more of them. These hypotheses are equally plausible and mutually exclusive.

So are a lot of other theories around how autonomous cars will change our travel behavior. If they make travel easier, perhaps autonomous cars will induce new trips that we aren’t making today. You’ll never have to say to yourself on a Friday night, “I think I’ll stay home because I can’t find parking/don’t want to deal with traffic/don’t want to drive home drunk.” As a result, the number of trips and the number of miles we collectively travel could increase.

Or, maybe, autonomous cars will create new efficiencies, enabling better carpooling, less idling in traffic, and smarter route-planning. Computers won’t waste gas getting lost or circling for parking spots. And, as a result, total miles traveled and greenhouse gases will decline.

Stephen L. Carter dismisses some common concerns about the cars:

The most common worry seems to be that the computers that run the cars might be hacked. And there are larger fears. Last summer, the Guardian quoted a restricted report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation warning that criminals or terrorists might use driverless cars to their advantage. Imagine a car bomb whose builder doesn’t need to go to the trouble of recruiting a sufficiently fanatical driver.

These warnings, however, may be less dire than they seem. Yes, there might be harm if the cars were hacked, but that risk would likely be offset by a sharp reduction in drivers operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And, yes, terrorists would most certainly find a way to turn autonomous cars to their advantage. But terrorists will find a way to turn every new technology to their advantage. That’s a reason to fight a war on terror, not a war on technology.