Self-driving cars are no longer the distant, futuristic dream that they once were, but an immediate reality that is going to blow up in the next three years. Google has been testing its experimental autonomous vehicles in California since 2013 with tremendously positive results, and since then, car companies and Silicon Valley giants have been pouring billions into the developing industry.
That’s right: you can buy self-driving cars right now. They won’t work just yet – Tesla has decided to do some calibration before launching a software update to their vehicles which will activate the functionality, but according to Musk, this will happen as early as 2017.
With the dawn of self-driving cars less than two years away, it’s worth considering some of the major ways that they can change our lives in the next half century.
Car ownership will be obsolete
Car ownership is a rarity in big cities, but for a long time, cars have been a necessity in rural and suburban areas where taxi companies and public transportation are less accessible.
But online services like Uber are already reducing the rate of car ownership in these areas substantially, and analysts think that self-driving cars may completely eradicate the need to own a car at all, no matter where you live.
In January of this year, General Motors poured $500 million into transportation service Lyft, and bought self-driving car startup Cruise Automation for over a billion dollars. Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer at GM explained the company’s intentions: “We are working on an on-demand ride-sharing network…it’s not something we are thinking about, it’s something we are very much readying for consumer use.”
Never worry about parking again
Parking is a nightmare you’ll never have to face again when self-driving cars dominate the roads. Even if you own your car, you’ll be able to call it right back to you as soon as it’s needed, so there’s no need for it to hang around after it drops you off.
In Nashville Tennessee, a developer is already creating a gigantic underground parking garage in anticipation of self-driving vehicles. Spaces like these will become much more common as time goes by, and according to research by car company Audi, a parking garage reserved entirely for self-driving vehicles can reduce parking real-estate by 62%.
In fifty years or so, sprawling parking lots in front of Malls and shopping centers may be simply non-existent, leaving much more room for business development and pedestrian areas. Uber have already started developing self driving taxi services, check the below video for the demo
No more pizza delivery boys
In fifty years, you won’t have to worry about counting out tip money after ordering a pizza. If drones aren’t already being used to deliver pizza by then, automatic cars will be. In fact, automatic cars will be able to deliver anything to your doorstep, making errands a thing of the past.
Not only that, but without the need for a human passenger, specialized vehicles can be equipped to keep perishables cool, or food – like Pizza – hot and ready at the time of delivery. Because operating a driverless vehicle is efficient and inexpensive, businesses that had no delivery service before will be able to reach out to a much larger customer base.
Tech startup Marathon Robotics has already teamed up with Domino’s to create an automatic pizza delivery system in Australia, though it’s currently used only in Brisbane.
Truckers will go the way of the dinosaur
Hiring someone to drive a truck is expensive, dangerous and inefficient. Not only does a truck driver make an average yearly salary of $60,000, but he can only drive for a certain number of hours before needing to sleep, eat, use the restroom, etc. Because of pressure to meet certain benchmarks, truckers are often sleep deprived and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel, causing numerous accidents every year.
Tech startup Otto, which was recently bought by Uber for $670 million, is working to reduce the need for hiring a truck driver by developing self-driving semi-trucks. At first, automated trucks will still require someone present to operate the vehicle, at least in cities. But they’ll at least be able to sleep during the long, hundreds of miles across flat and monotonous interstates.
No more traffic lights
Traffic lights are for human beings, with limited senses, and carbon-based brains. Computers don’t need traffic lights. According to researchers from MIT, self-driving cars can be synchronized, allowing them to automatically adjust speed, and safely pass through intersections without risk of a collision.
Getting rid of traffic lights will be beneficial in a number of ways, reducing the time that cars idle and therefore lessening fuel consumption, getting people to their destinations in a timelier fashion, and reducing traffic congestion.
No more phantom traffic jams
The all-too-familiar rush hour that creates wall to wall traffic in cities across the world can be nearly eliminated by self-driving cars. Contrary to popular belief, many traffic jams are not caused by accidents, but by careless drivers who slow down too quickly, causing a complex wave of slowing cars that can go on for hours before dissipating.
The same synchronization that prevents self-driving cars from needing traffic lights will also enable them to communicate during traffic, and avoid practices that lead to this phenomenon, reducing commute time, and making the road a safer place.
Many lives will be saved
In 2014, former General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz predicted that self-driving vehicles would crash at about 10% the rate of human drivers. “The autonomous car doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t text while driving, doesn’t get road rage,” he pointed out.
Since then, a study published by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute confirmed that Lutz was right: after analyzing over a million miles of data from self-driving vehicles, they are clearly much safer than cars operated by human beings.
3,287 people die from car crashes every day. Self-driving cars will bring that number down significantly. What more is there to say?
It’s important to stress that self-driving cars are already here, and they will become very common in the next two decades. Not only will they make life better for human beings in many positive ways by reducing the cost of transportation, increasing efficiency of transit and eliminating many of the ordinary inconveniences associated with driving, but they will also have a big impact on the planet: optimistic calculations say that self-driving cars can reduce vehicle related carbon emissions by 90%.
According to Elon Musk, the next big challenge is not technological, but bureaucratic: legislators have to be convinced to pass laws that will allow automated vehicles on public roads.