By Justin Harter, ISAHU Technology Chair
Click or walk into any group of engineers, urbanists, or transportation planners and you’ll hear about self-driving cars. Depending on who you ask these cars are either coming soon, decades away, a problem, or a solution. Personally, I see driverless cars like every other piece of technology: available today, better tomorrow, and so incrementally better ten years from now it will be unrecognizable. We also don’t know how we’re really going to use them yet and their use cases will evolve.
Transportation is a hard problem that’s bounded by geometry and money. For one, cars seem to come in a one-size-fits-four model that are inefficient for one person. That also makes them more expensive and they still consume just much space on the road as any other vehicle.
Governments are likely to be a sticking point. Generations of investment in car-centric cities makes most of our cities just a series of parking and fueling money pits. Governments aren’t going to undo all of the infrastructure overnight. Look at cities like Indianapolis and Chicago where parking meters have been privatized and taxpayers are on the hook. What happens if no one parks cars in forty years?
But self-driving cars are likely to be safer as they pay more attention to their surroundings that humans. It’s also likely companies like Uber and Lyft will invest heavily in self-driving tech so people can share or rent a car for less than owning one. The theory goes that the fewer people who own a car, the fewer cars just sit parked most of the day. Thus raising the efficiency of the cars in use.
Therein lies the rub with the auto insurance industry: there could be dramatically fewer cars, far fewer accidents, and what does that leave a property and casualty insurance salesperson to do? Hope for another baby boom or more hail storms to pummel car windshields from time to time?
All of this is conjecture because none of these cars are ready for use on the road. Waymo announced the first automated car share in Phoenix this month, but it’s in Phoenix because they can’t handle snow at all and rain is problematic. If cars fail because they become moist I wouldn’t hang up your driving gloves just yet.
It’s most likely the first forays into driverless cars won’t be very good. They’ll require literal hand-holding and maybe only go automated on a highway. Then they’ll get smarter each year until they can safely recognize children on a sidewalk and a cyclist on the bike path. For the whole time they’ll be more expensive thanks to all their technology, and sometimes that technology will fail leaving us to wonder if it’s worth it. Like the guy in your office who says word processors aren’t as good as typewriters because “paper doesn’t crash” (it does get wet, blow away, burn, and get lost, though). Which is ironic because driverless cars don’t like getting wet or getting blown around. The batteries can catch fire still, and who knows where they’ll get lost if they just drive around all day.