On the road to the future: exploring the self-driving car revolution

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

You fall into a panic along I-5 as a truck up ahead drops a pile of logs into your lane. But the fear subsides as the car you are not driving quickly merges lanes to avoid the obstacle. Your unprompted savior is part of the latest generation of automobiles: self-driving cars.

Barreling down the highway at exactly the speed limit, these cars use cleverly engineered sensors to detect terrain, road conditions, other drivers, and pedestrians. Twenty times a second, they activate their Light Detection and Ranging System (LIDAR), collecting distance measurements from 64 lasers that work much like radar. Then infrared cameras highlight hazards up ahead, while other cameras track lane markings. All this data forms a real-time, 360-degree view that the computer of each vehicle uses to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in real time, constantly recalibrating its path to avoid obstacles. Say goodbye to car accidents, one of the leading causes of death in America. With their 50-millisecond reaction time, we learn from the New York Times article “Google Cars Drive Themselves, In Traffic” that they have suffered just one accident in the 300,000 miles they have driven on their own: getting rear-ended while stopped at a red light.

What the car sees

Imagine what your lifestyle will become as we move to autonomous cars. As you finish breakfast and get ready for school in the morning, a car arrives outside. You climb in and relax; the car remembers your favorite radio station and tunes to it automatically. Then it picks up your carpool buddy, depositing both of you at school. What if you later realize that you forgot something at home? No problem: the car ferries the item to you.

Not only do these technological advances spell out safety and convenience for commuters, but they also make it less attractive to own a car as rental alternatives rise to power. Autonomous vehicles are slowly falling into the favor of state regulations — they are currently legal to operate on California, Nevada, and Florida roads. And companies like Zipcar have already been wildly successful at forming garages with cars available for rent by the hour. When the populace eventually adopts self-driving cars, we will see Zipcar-esque garages stockpiled with computer-driven cars that are ready to pick you up at a moment’s notice. No longer will the victims of urban sprawl resort to purchasing personal cars to commute; instead, car availability will likely be provided by corporations that earn profits by minimizing the amount of “dead time” each car spends parked and not out on the road.

Although this future entails big savings for those who commute for a few hours a day or fewer, these changes will be devastating for our delivery industry and for the retail infrastructure developed for private cars. Immediately, truck drivers will lose their jobs as they are replaced by self-driving trucks — when cars drive themselves 24/7, who needs a truck driver, anyway? Similarly, the future spells out the bust of gas stations, as rent-a-car garage companies purchase fuel directly and use less by forming intelligent carpools and minimizing congestion on the roads. The age of the taxi ends here, too; and wish your mechanic goodbye as large rent-a-car garages choose to purchase new cars over the more expensive path of repairing older ones, or develop car servicing agreements with large repair shops and dealerships.

Besides the massive job losses stemming from the automation, and the need for massive re-training of workers in the automotive and delivery services, local government revenues will tank as parking tickets and driving citations disappear. Fewer traffic cops and driving schools will be needed as well. Automated driving will not only push the unemployment rate to new extremes, but the resources for providing safety nets to take care of these newly displaced workers will dry up as cities recoup fewer funds via human driving-related charges.

The self-driving car revolution appears inevitable and it will result in a more efficient and safer society that uses its resources more effectively. Yet its negative ramifications are significant. Along with homeownership, personal car ownership is a vital component of the American Dream. Thus, switching to driverless cars will be a serious cultural and psychological change — one that cannot happen overnight. We must gradually find a balance between increasing overall productivity and comfort and maintaining a balanced society with low unemployment — otherwise, job losses in the automotive sector will not be neutralized by new jobs in other areas. If we start reshaping our attitudes to driving now, and start preparing for massive re-education programs, we can avoid flushing the entire service industry down the drain and simultaneously create a new, more productive work force that has higher technical skills. This would ultimately resolve in a higher quality of life for citizens, giving them more time to embrace culture and enjoy themselves, and allowing our society to dedicate manpower to our dreams of exploring space.

As the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Removing the hassles of car driving and ownership would be a giant leap for our society – but also a serious transition that requires careful planning in order to avoid social catastrophes and devastation for large groups of American people.