The driverless vehicle is the Next Big Thing! Or maybe not. Folks are enjoying much pontificating and both Big Auto and Big Tech are handing out news blurbs but we don’t see any such advertised for general sale, anywhere. Nor do we expect that any time soon.
Consider: Millions of cars sit around idle most of the time in garages or on parking lots, just so that millions of people can be wherever they want to be whenever they want to be there. Should big business or government replace all of them with centrally owned vehicles, there won’t be a vehicle for each present car owner; the return on investment or required taxes will be a high barrier. And to the extent that the massive car provider doesn’t provide so many cars, it will be necessary to reschedule civilization to spread out peak demands: Everybody won’t be able to go to work around the same time anymore. Or all go shopping on weekends.
If instead the tech can be made so inexpensive that everyone will still buy their own cars for regular but very part time use, then the costs of the tech to make the cars driverless plus the new tech to adapt the roads and traffic controls and provide safety for drunken pedestrians and teen age bikers may add up to enough extra expense that it will be simpler and cheaper just to retain human drivers. We will have to see. Today, people can drive after natural calamities to some extent at least. But if a calamity involves say, the power grid or cell phone towers, will driverless tech remain available?
Then too, will such vehicles be equipped with driver controls? Will a driver be able to seize control from the computer? If so, at least one passenger will have to be a driver at all times, restricting the use of the vehicle and adding the cost of maintaining those drivers to the cost of the service. No calling a driverless to take the kids to school. It may be cheaper to call Uber.
Perhaps though, the idea will serve in special cases. Taxi-rich Manhattan or central London, for instance. Such driverless vehicles should be cheaper than manned taxis, especially after private vehicles are excluded. But scheduling seems likely to remain an issue.
Once past these issues, we can visualize packs of attorneys salivating over litigation opportunities opening up with the inevitable accidents, injuries and unexpected consequences. If grandma trips over a curb exiting a driverless vehicle and requires cosmetic surgery, was it her fault or did the vehicle stop too far from the curb? Just imagine the first time a car, driverless or not, tangles with a driverless truck.
Or suppose that such autonomous transport is fed more slowly into the mix as expensive luxury affordable by the wealthy at first. The first traffic accident seems likely to make legal and insurance history.
Instead, perhaps we should first look for today’s navigator and cruise controls to improve and to gradually integrate into each other, relieving drivers of physical detail. That could proceed with less disruption but it will not arrive in any rush, seems to us. We replaced the horse pretty fast; replacing the driver seems likely to take longer.