It has probably been a few decades already since people first started making bold predictions about how self-driving cars will “soon” be a thing, without any real signs of that happening anytime soon. Today though, it’s a different story. We not only already have actual, working examples of autonomous vehicles, but many countries around the world are already working to integrate them into their societies.
From creating new legal frameworks, to laying down the technical infrastructure to support a future with self-driving cars, it’s clear that this is not just a dream anymore. And we’re probably not too far away from a time when most cars on the road will be driving themselves – it’s not a bold prediction to expect that within the next decade. With that said, let’s explore how this could change the world as we know it, and what we can expect to happen over the next few years.
Improved Access for Everyone
People won’t be so restricted in what facilities they have access to any longer. Many people live in disconnected settings that rely on long transportation to get anywhere, and when they don’t have a car or can’t drive one at all, this can lead to significant disadvantages in their lives. Self-driving cars can make that a thing of the past, ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at obtaining the goods and services that they need, and without having to pay anything extra for it. This could have a major impact on the way society is structured, as it will free more people to live away from the hustle and bustle of big cities without having to sacrifice any of their comfort for it.
Working on the Go
Driving is often seen as wasted time by those who have to do it frequently, especially commuters. And it’s true – other than listening to the occasional podcast (and not one that requires too much concentration), there’s not much one can do to fill their time productively while they’re on the road. With a self-driving car, a person could use their travel time to get some work done on the go. Or perhaps to relax and unwind before and after a busy working day. This can lead to significant improvements in overall productivity, and can allow many people to chase after their dreams without worrying about time constraints.
It should go without saying that a road filled primarily with self-driving cars will be a safer road. Computers can do the job much better than humans, especially when those humans are frequently exhausted, distracted, or just in a hurry to get where they need to be without regards for those around them. Just take a look here for an overview of the current numbers, and you’ll realize how much this could change.
And that doesn’t even have to lead to any slowdowns! It’s a common misconception that if all (or most) cars are self-driving, then it will take longer to reach places, because those cars will obey traffic laws from A to Z. But research has shown that if everyone on the road behaved perfectly, this could actually increase the overall throughput of most major channels. In the end, the biggest slowdowns are caused exactly by that random person who thinks they can skirt a few rules because they “know better”.
Less Wasting of Resources
And that brings us to another important point. Since humans are not perfect drivers (far from it, in fact), we also tend to waste lots of resources while on the road. A self-driving car can ensure that the entire trip is carried out optimally with regards to gas, brake application, tire wear, and more. That is, if gasoline is even a popular solution for fueling cars in the near future. But in the end, the environment stands to benefit significantly from a situation where roads are occupied by self-driving cars and not by human drivers.
There’s also ridesharing, which is already growing in popularity, but is likely going to go through a major surge once self-driving cars are the norm. Many experts predict that car ownership will change as a concept drastically once that takes place. Instead of a single person owning a car 100% of the time, resulting in that car sitting idly parked somewhere for most of its lifetime, cars will be shared and distributed among people who currently need a ride. Think of it like a taxi, only every car on the road is a potential taxi.
If you need to commute to work for any duration over half an hour, you’re probably well aware of the severe mental impact this can have on the average person. Road rage is something that shouldn’t be underestimated, and daily commuters with long trips tend to be the most frequent victims of it. But if you don’t have to sit occupied behind the wheel, and delays are far less frequent because nobody is making silly mistakes, that could become a thing of the past. People would actually arrive to work fresh and energized – some might even opt to take a nap on the way there!
It will certainly be interesting to see how the removal of driving as a fundamental need for daily transportation impacts the way we think about those long trips. And when you do get to where you’re headed, you’ll also have one less common headache to deal with – parking. You can just get off and leave the car on its own as it heads to its next destination, or perhaps goes to recharge. Just think of the last time you’ve had to roam around a parking lot in circles looking for an empty spot, and imagine a life without having to experience that ever again.
The positive effects on delays and other traffic issues are also going to impact the logistics sector, and that could bring lots of benefits for everyone. Your deliveries will get to you faster, companies will be more productive because they won’t suffer from shipment delays, and the industrial sector could go through another revolution because of those changes. Many companies are already experimenting with automated trucks and other larger vehicles, and it looks like this could be an even bigger focus than consumer-oriented cars.
And while some have raised concerns about the potential impact this could have on many people’s livelihoods, the reality is that a market like this will likely create even more opportunities for workers. They will just be involved in duties that don’t require them to sit behind the wheel of a truck for eight hours at a time.
Less Need for Parking Space
Many cities are already evaluating how a total shift to self-driving cars could impact their infrastructure and the assignment of physical space. The main takeaway is that a lot of space that’s currently dedicated to large parking lots could be converted to other uses without losing anything. After all, one major point of self-driving cars is that they’ll be constantly on the go, meaning that we’ll need far less parking space as a whole.
Not only that, but those lots won’t have to be in the middle of populated areas any longer. They could be moved outside of the city, where cars will go when they need to stay idle for a few hours, or to recharge. In the end, people won’t even see any parked cars around the streets – there simply won’t be a need for that anymore.
Another way in which cars are transforming cities is that many experts have now started to consider the idea of “smart cities”, where cars are just a part of a larger ecosystem. This doesn’t just have to involve things directly related to traffic, like traffic lights and bridge controls – it could be a major concept that transforms the way we see cities and live in them, bringing everything together in one major connected network. If you think having a smart home where you can see all your devices at a glance and control anything from anywhere is cool, just wait until you see the idea expanded to an entire city.
It might sound like science fiction, but we’re moving in that exact direction already – and autonomous cars have been a major driving force behind that. However, unlike self-driving cars themselves, this will likely take some time to materialize, as it’s largely still an unrealized concept. Some cities around the world are already laying down the groundwork for that though, so we might see some initial examples not too far from now.
We live in an amazing time with regards to changes like these, because science and especially digital technology are moving faster than ever before. Things that are basic reality now used to be beyond the wildest dreams of some sci-fi fans a few decades ago, and it looks like the next decade alone could bring more changes to the table than several of the last ones combined. It’s important to have patience in all of this though, as those changes are also inevitably going to be delayed by bureaucratic issues. New laws can be hard to push forward, especially ones that impact the very underlying structure of society.