90 percent fewer car crashes
First think about the horrible deaths and disabilities that will be avoided. Using a conservative estimate that robot drivers are 90 percent less likely to crash, that means 90 percent of all traffic accidents can be eliminated.
That means 4,000 deaths a year instead of 40,000 in the United States. That means 23,000 serious injuries instead of 2.3 MILLION. That means about $1.5 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity instead of $152 BILLION.
That means a whole bunch more teenagers and tipsy drivers and sleepy drivers and bad drivers get to live, go home to their families, carry on with their jobs, maybe even invent things, create amazing movies, compose awesome rocks songs, raise beautiful children, on and on.
Yeah, there would be trade offs. Demand for skilled trauma services would plummet, from paramedics and aircare helicopters to surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and X-ray and MRI techs. Demand for rehab services would fall, along with lower need for wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.
The future of auto body repair shops would crash--pun intended. The need for traffic cops, and judges, and lawyers to resolve drunk driving cases and post-crash lawsuits would drop sharply, The number of auto insurance claims would drop so fast that the entire industry might collapse.
Imagine a day with no more "General" ads for cheap car coverage! Some level of auto insurance will be needed, some accidents will happen, some damage will occur, but all the actuarial tables would ratchet down. The costs of auto insurance would rightfully plummet.
An explosion of freedom for the frail
The day autonomous cars arrive, the demand for cars that can be easily accessed by the elderly and people with disabilities will soar. All we need is a car maker, maybe partnered with a hospital or AARP, to make a few models that allow for direct roll-on wheelchair access.
Stephen Hawking could drive himself anywhere he wants to go. So could millions of 85- and 90-year-old people who wouldn't mind going out for a bite to eat but don't want to bother with taxis and buses and relatives...much less Uber. The demand for Applebees and Cracker Barrel and Olive Garden would blossom faster than a bloomin' onion! Especially if franchises get smart about making senior access easy and service friendly.
Every form of "snowbirding" would become vastly easier to achieve. With robot cars safely taking retirees everywhere they want to go, whenever they want to go, every country lane, every seaside, every mountain ridge with a vista becomes a place that retirees can visit and enjoy, not just in their 60s and 70s, but in their 80s, 90s, even 100s.
A new generation of RVs
If a car can be outfitted with robot controls, imagine how easy it would be for robots to drive RVs. Imagine the road trip potential of that. Nobody has to know how to drive a beast of a vehicle. Everybody can have a beer. The RV could drive all night while people sleep their way to their destinations.
With the right portable solar recharging technology, it may be possible for RVs to literally never stop until people want them to stop. A few rich people currently choose to retire on cruise ships that offer floating cities to see the world. In a nation as vast as America, the highways could become retirement homes for nomadic flocks of retirees. Sell a house, buy a true land yacht, and never look back. Don't want to go anywhere because you have family in town? If you can't find a cheap campground, rest stop or Wal-Mart parking lot, just drive in circles along an outer loop beltway, or just drive four hours north and four hours south, etc.
The manufacturing possibilities of vehicle design would change radically. There's not really much of a limit to the ways a mobile home can be finished, from cheap and practical to ridiculously exotic. Some of the people who lose jobs in other fields would find jobs in these sorts of industries.
With frail occupants, new demand would emerge for improved personal services at gas stations and/or electric recharging stations (the fuel source is a small issue) along with restaurants and tourist locations. Demand would emerge for dispersed, mobile health support services. A vast interest would grow for satellite radio and other reliable means of road-based communication.
Land use needs for rest stops, RV campgrounds and road services would grow. The AAA-type organizations would make a fortune keeping vehicles in fresh tires, brakes and replacement batteries. And as long as robot vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines, the need for repairs and maintenance would continue (an industry that would change radically once electric powered vehicles take over).
The pressure to shove old people into nursing homes would decline and shift. Any person well enough to command a powered wheelchair would be able to ride anywhere they want in a robot vehicle. That means they can live in their own homes as long as they please, and health support services would need to come to them.
Even once elderly people need nursing care, imagine mobile nursing homes, staffed with nurses, etc. Believe it, a bed ridden person on an IV drip would rather be able to turn their head and see the world rolling by rather than staring out the same window with the same lousy view for weeks, months or years.
Suburban, exurban diaspora likely
Aside from the life-changes available to people too old or disabled to drive, life could change in big ways for regular healthy adults.
Imagine sleeping on your way to work, or watching a movie, or for the eager beavers imagine the power of a fully private mobile office. Sure, business people can do certain amounts of work on a bus, a train, or a plane. But the work is fundamentally limited by not being in a private setting.
However, in a closed vehicle that you don't have to drive, you can talk as long and as loud as you want on Skype or whatever similar video conferencing service you care to use. You can type with both hands on really big screens. This makes it possible for many more people to live--and work--quite long distances from their traditional workplaces.
The commutes that remain would be vastly more enjoyable, including traffic jams. Drivers who don't have to watch the road can watch a movie, read a book, or (gasp) actually do some work.
Massive work-culture disruption and opportunity
Certain forms of production will require gathering large numbers of people to work together in one place, but a lot of everything else can transform as fast as business innovation can think up the strategies.
Pizza delivery cars could become mobile pizza-making trucks and vans. Guaranteed hot and fresh! Now multiply that by every kind of food truck that you've ever heard of, all doing door-to-door delivery. The only limits would be space for ingredients and prep and the hassles of dealing with bumpy roads. (which by the way would drive a massive spike in demand for improved road quality, and that would be a wonderful thing for everybody.)
Small craft producers could work while driving to their art shows, or delivering product to Amazon distribution hubs. Some small businesses could function as their own delivery services. Musicians can practice on the way to their gigs. (They already use tour buses. The only change would be no need for a paid employee exploited with lack of benefits).
Odds and Ends
Meanwhile, its pretty obvious that a whole bunch of babies would get made inside robot-driven vehicles. Just like porn on the internet, a vast array of sex-driven business opportunities will emerge almost immediately after people can enjoy the privacy of a hands-off-the-wheel vehicle. That will be interesting, right?
Meanwhile, there will be opportunity in the backlash. Some people will want to keep their old (maybe even new boutique-produced) human-controlled cars, just because they really like driving. But I suspect that a lot of those people will abandon boring highways with horrible traffic jams to gravitate to places that allow interesting driving, be it race tracks or curvy country roads, etc.
I imagine a political movement that would call for designating large areas as robot-free driving ranges. Likewise, it is easy to imagine stretches of high-speed, high-volume highway being restricted to robot-only driving. Here we plant the seeds of a grand social compromise: efficient robot driving in crowded cities, free-range human driving in the countryside.
I imagine that some hard-core serious drivers might make use of robot flat-bed sleds to haul their vehicles to fun places to drive them. That's an entire new line of vehicles to build.
Just drive your car up onto the robot sled for the boring traffic jam or overnight travel across fly- over country, then take a spin once you reach the mountain resort, or special track, or whatever. Electric-powered robot sleds could become a useful tool for hauling around collectible gas-powered cars. And in car-loving America, car collecting will continue for many, many years to come.
Who knows what other wrinkles could develop with an explosion in vehicle-based entertainment. But I guarantee you this: more people will enjoy more aspects of robot-controlled transport when the vehicles are private and individual vs packing people into planes or trains or streetcars and then plugging in earphones and their noses into screens to block out the crowd.
The cities and the entrepreneurs that get behind this early will likely reap the largest rewards. And over the years, millions of people will live long enough to die of something else instead of a violent, painful and unplanned car crash.
Let's go there.