People still don't want to think about this trend, but robot-driven cars are coming, and sooner than we might expect. And the changes will be enormous.
From a tech and safety point of view, robot-controlled cars will be dramatically safer than humans behind the wheel. Drunk driving could become irrelevant. There would be no such thing as falling asleep while driving. There would be no swerving while texting, calling, eating, tuning the stereo, adjusting the heat, reading a map, applying make-up, spilling the coffee, etc.
Yes, there could be some bad outcomes if computers malfunction or get hacked by terrorists. But that minor risk would be more than offset by no more tailgating, no more slowpokes (including trucks) in the left lane, no more road rage. Robots would always drive more sensibly in bad weather than people. Robots have no ego. Robots do not become impatient.
Thousands of lives at stake
By the way, did you know that our roads are actually becoming safer already? In 2009, 33,800 people died in vehicle crashes in the U.S. That's down -- quite a bit -- from 44,600 deaths in 1990. Surprised by that number? I was. As recently as 2008, this report states that motor vehicle deaths ranked as the ninth leading cause of death in the US. Back in 1981, driving killed more than 94,000 Americans and was among the top five leading causes of death. By 2009, however, road deaths fell off the top 10 list.
So to all those folks who think tougher laws on seat belts and drunk driving and silly government regulations regarding air bags, bumpers and crumple zones make no difference, well, you are wrong. Even before full-blown robocars arrive, we're seeing lives saved by driver-assist technology, from anti-lock brakes to proximity alarms and crash avoidance systems.
Yet even with all that good news, 34,000 deaths remains way too many. Especially for anyone who has lost a loved one (too often a teen child) to a senseless, avoidable crash. Robo-cars could reduce road deaths to truly rare events.
More effective uses of infrastructure and time
An especially valuable thing about robocars would be that they would use the vast road infrastructure we already have. Robo-cars could go everywhere existing cars can go -- offering much more flexibility than buses and rail-based transit systems.
As stated by the author of the WSJ article, time spent not controlling a car could be used in lots of better ways. People could use their commute time to sleep, to work and talk on cell phones, or to sing as loud as they want -- all in private. Strangers would be unable to see your paperwork or hear proprietary conversations. On recreational road trips, everybody in the car could take in the scenery, and perhaps enjoy an adult beverage along the way. Couples could, uh, you know, couple. Welcome to the 80-MPH Club!
Robocars could vastly improve freedom of movement for senior citizens, who all too often hole up in their homes because they no longer can drive safely. The caregiver burden of running old folks back and forth to medical appointments could evaporate. Robocars also could be a blessing to busy parents, who could send the car to pick up or drop off the kids, without having to go themselves.
Can we handle the culture shock?
Robocars likely would bring deep changes in American culture. The little boy dreams of pretending to be a race car driver would be crushed by the efficiency and technical superiority of the auto-drive. Robocars would reduce road travel to the pure utility of getting from point A to point B.
There's a loss of adventurism and self-control in this. Many people still long for a wild frontier. Robocars would put an end to the freedom of the highway concept.
Maybe instead of promoting effective use of time, robocars would lead to even more slovenly, sloppy, lazy people (ala the WALL-E movie).
Maybe only upscale people could afford robocars, leading to even more tension between the haves and have-nots.
Robotic vehicles likely would eliminate thousands of fairly low-skill human jobs in the trucking, taxi and school bus industries. And by replacing such a common human task, robocars could result in surplus numbers of people. A robot-assisted society would have powerful interests in birth control and education reform. Unions and right-to-lifers won't be happy.
Will robocars reduce or expand "sprawl"?
The WSJ article exhibits a dismissive contempt for America's love affair with the car --almost as if cars were a bad thing.
The story is very big-city centric, especially when it discusses HOV lanes and other weird traffic restrictions imposed only by giant cities. It also assumes that young people don't care about driving anymore. It even disses pecan logs!
I agree that driving in big cities along clogged rush-hour expressways is a major hassle. What kid who dreamed of owning a car ever looked forward to being a commuter? No, the love affair for cars isn't about big cities. It's about the small towns and and modest-sized cities. It's about life in what coastal snobs would call "fly-over country."
Instead of serving an urbanist agenda, robocars might help more people enjoy living farther from the big city. After all, commuters could literally sleep during their long ride to work and get a lot of bill paying and other paperwork chores done on the commute back home. Back home, family time/free time would truly be family time/free time. This supports a suburban lifestyle.
In the great majority of not-so-giant cities in America, robocars would become a major challenge to "mass" transit. In a city like Cincinnati -- 2 million people living in several counties -- rail transit can only be useful to those who live close to the lines. Most people simply don't live near rail corridors, and most cities will never be able to afford the many branch lines needed to actually serve the public. As a result, rail transit is nearly useless for routine errand running, or reaching restaurants, parks and other widely scattered amenities. Even our bus system -- with many more routes than a streetcar can provide -- does a fairly poor job of helping people run their crosstown errands.
But imagine the taxi service and car-sharing opportunities offered by robocars. Unlike buses and trains, robocars can go everywhere a car can go, offering the potential for door-to-door service. They can drive themselves to pick people up and can run 24/7 without three shifts of human drivers. Robotic rent-a-trucks could handle tasks that no streetcar or train can handle. And they robocars would be the ultimate designated driver for a night on the town.
Supporting, not dictating how people live
Robocars would support and improve how most Americans already choose to live. That's technology with real and widespread potential value.
Combine robo-control with the reduced pollution and reduced noise of electric vehicles and you've got a major win-win for the American middle class. One of the biggest arguments against sprawl (that the public has a green interest in killing suburbs to control pollution from gas-powered cars) would be greatly weakened.
Mass transit requires people to live in big crowded cities. Private and publicly-owned robocars would give people the choice to live nearly anywhere they want. And that's a big part of the freedom Americans love.