Autonomous Vehicles Are Going to Save Us from Standing Still

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— story by Michael Harley

Imagine: If each week you purchased seven fresh Caffé Latte ventis from Starbucks, yet consumed only five, after a year you’d be awash in over 100 excess cups of rancid brew.

Logic, of course, would normally prevail over such a mindless exercise.

Now consider this: The world’s automakers added a record 17.5 million additional cars and trucks to U.S. roads last year, yet, during the same period, only about 12 million vehicles reached the end of their service lives and were retired. While an annual surplus of 5.5-million units may not sound like much — especially when added to the 235 million registered vehicles already on the road today — simple math says this number of newly owned vehicles would, if placed nose to tail, create a traffic jam stretching about 20,000 miles.

That’s one helluva bottleneck. However, the automotive industry doesn’t generally concern itself with matters of congestion or gridlock and instead will wantonly produce vehicles as fast as Americans still buy into our consumerist society’s ideal of (at least) one car for every licensed driver. But, someday, not too far in the future, when those new 20,000-mile-long traffic jams finally run out of terra firma and we find ourselves at a complete stop, the grid fully locked, we’ll wish we’d taken another road ahead.

Yet technology will save us before we reach critical mass. After 130 years of living with vehicles piloted solely by people (and not very well, considering that, even after huge gains in automotive safety, more than 30,000 people still lose their lives on U.S. roads each year), we humans are about to take a back seat to self-driven or autonomous vehicles.

While to an enthusiast that might sound like the plot of a horror film, this is not entirely a dark tale of lost freedoms. There is an upside: Tomorrow’s autonomous protocol will allow anyone (can’t really call them drivers!) to quickly and easily share vehicles drawn from fleets of self-driving vehicles — which rarely will be parked, will be on-call at all hours of the day to shuttle the kids to school, mom to the office, seniors to the doctor, and even your unsavory uncle home safely from the bar. Instead of fearing this tireless, always prompt worker, we have every reason to embrace the technology.

Implementing the autonomous model will, of course, happen gradually. Initially, rentals will help validate the concept and demonstrate the convenience, cost savings, and safety benefits. Now an obvious solution, the movement will gain traction and convince many private owners to replace their cars or trucks with self-driving vehicles. However, a new dynamic comes into play, too: New-car sales volumes will slow as families, friends, and even co-workers begin sharing the same vehicles — and congestion on the roads and highways will begin to dissipate.

Traditional car manufacturers will adapt to the trend, offering consumers specific automaker-sponsored programs. There will be programs for consumers at every budget level. For example, an affluent family might hold a membership card to the “BMW Autonomous Concierge,” which operates a fleet of factory-owned luxury vehicles that will pick them up and drop them off in autonomous vehicles adorned with a fashionable Roundel.

As time progresses, new-car sales will continue to fall as private owners realize that autonomous technology is not cheap and is better leased or rented from third parties — better to convert the home garage to a bedroom or office than to store an asset that’s expensive to buy and is constantly depreciating.

As the number of vehicles on the roads continues to plummet, traffic congestion will slowly become a thing of the past.

Autonomous vehicles will not just free us from the frustrating misery of bumper-to-bumper traffic. They will make our lives easier, allow us to spend more time with our families, and be vastly safer: Self-driving vehicles don’t consume alcohol, they don’t text, they don’t fall asleep, and they never become blind with road rage.

The last significant transportation transition occurred in 1910, when motorize cars replaced horse-drawn carriages. While nobody can accurately predict when autonomous vehicles will replace self-piloted cars and trucks, it’s a safe bet that a child born this afternoon won’t ever need to learn how to drive.

They also won’t ever experience the pain of a Sig Alert on the 405.


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