19 Ways Driverless Cars Will Change America

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Cars changed America and its cities. Driverless cars could change it even more. For starters, the top causes of traffic accidents in the United States are distracted driving, speeding or reckless driving and driving under the influence. All would conceivably be diminished should cars be automated.

Traffic accidents cause traffic jams, which cause freeways to clog. Autonomous vehicles hold out the promise to keep things moving and thus lessen the ever expanding need for additional freeways.

You’d think fewer freeways would be a welcome notion in the urban-centric world, but rather the chorus has been something like “automated cars are still cars.” That is true, but like them or not, autonomous cars are already operating in Pittsburgh, and the changes wrought by them are on the way. And they could be good for cities.

Here are the imagined impacts:

A Google self-driving car at the intersection of Junction Ave and North Rengstorff Ave in Mountain View. This picture was taken from the bike lane of North Rengstorff Ave.
A Google self-driving car at the intersection of Junction Ave and North Rengstorff Ave in Mountain View. This picture was taken from the bike lane of North Rengstorff Ave. Via Wikimedia Commons

Accidents: Automation is expected to result in fewer traffic accidents, so there is first and foremost a human component. Auto accident lawyers are also likely to become an extinct species.

Parking: Just imagine for a moment all of the unused vehicles sitting at the airport at any given time. Not only could the land be better-used for something else, but it’s likely there will be less need for parking as automated vehicles become more prevalent. All those downtown parking garages may need to be redeveloped in the coming years.

Zoning Codes: Zoning codes will likely need to be re-written both to accommodate passenger pick-up and to limit or eliminate parking requirements.

Home Design: The two-car garage may become a thing of the past and the face of a home may again be a porch or stoop rather than a garage door. Building underground for parking garages could also be minimized, so construction companies, engineers and architects may look forward to those changes. Without underground parking, buildings again can front the street at ground level.

Car Ownership: Car ownership may not go away completely. Consumers like to purchase cars the same way they buy electronics, and the culture of cars may not be so easily kicked. We also keep a lot of things in our cars that would otherwise need to be carried around. Some of this may be diminished with drone delivery and even autonomous vehicle delivery. It will also help to have a building with a doorman (person). Owning an old-fashioned car, or even a personal automated one could become significantly more expensive.

Mobility: The least expensive places to live today often have the fewest options in terms of mobility. Automated vehicles will increase the mobility of everyone most anywhere. However, the efficiency of automated vehicles will be highest in the places they can be used the most. That is where the most people live. Just as a long taxi ride costs more than a short one, a ride in an automated vehicle is likely to cost less if you are not going very far. In any case, I expect the use of automated vehicles to cost less than car ownership.

A taste of life without individual car ownership?
A taste of life without individual car ownership?

Public Transit: Again, this is one of the impacts that is harder to envision. The impact of automated vehicles on long-distance travel is likely to be minimal. But will the access to a driverless vehicle make the inner-city bus obsolete? What about the subway? If I had to guess, the automated vehicles will be more likely to impact the use of anything with frequent stops like buses and light rail, and less likely to have an impact on the use of commuter trains. Of course, buses could also be automated (the subway in Vancouver has been automated for years) and there could be a cost-benefit to riding it vs waiting for an individual vehicle. Then there’s “the last mile” problem that automated vehicles could certainly solve (if they don’t replace the trip entirely).

Bicycling: It will be a lot more safe to ride a bicycle in urban areas since the threat of aggravated or distracted humans running into you has been diminished.

Change in Auto Design: Since individual ownership of vehicles is expected to subside, the variety of options available today will be diminished. Contracts this to the 1970s when General Motors made five or more varieties of what was basically the same car. Vehicles will also get smaller since they are used for shorter periods of time. If trips are shorter, electric and hybrid vehicles may be more commonplace since mechanically they last longer and it’s not a problem if they need to stop in-between trips for a charge.

Increased Productivity: Recent technological advances have not done much for productivity. Smartphones, social media and the like may be to blame for falling worker productivity in the U.S. Indeed, shopping online can cut into working hours. All that time spent in traffic and in driving may just be freed up, and some of it added to productivity numbers.

Environment: Fewer cars and shared vehicles are expected to lead to less air pollution and less gasoline use. Fewer parking spaces and improvements in traffic flow will also have environmental benefits.

Land Use: This is where it gets tricky. Less freeway congestion will mean easier access to the suburbs, which could mean a return to the attractiveness of a home away from the city. Less need for spaces for cars in urban areas could improve the attractiveness as a walkable place to live. Bill Gates famously said he expected the Internet to make place less important, but that has not happened. So it is hard to predict what the impact of automation will be on land use and urban growth patterns. If you consider the suburban retail areas, however, it is hard to imagine them as attractive places without the need for all of that parking. If you want me to guess here, the effect will be a move toward less dense urban areas such as those built as streetcar suburbs or at the dawn of the automobile age. There will certainly be fewer gas stations around.

Police Staffing:  What percentage of police are assigned to traffic patrol? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer on it, but the number is conceivably greater than 50 percent. There won’t be the need if cars are automated.

Car Chase Movies and TV Shows: They would all need to be set in the past. Could you image Smokey and the Bandit or Dukes of Hazzard with automated vehicles?

Drive-in Restaurants and Banks: Visiting the physical location of a bank has already been diminished by technology and it’s questionable whether automated vehicles will be used to visit drive-thru restaurants.

Privacy: As they say in Brooklyn, fuggedaboutit. Every car will have GPS.

Life Expectancy: 2015 brought the biggest increase in deaths from auto accidents in 50 years. Almost 40,000 people died in auto accidents that year, up 8 percent from the year before. In addition, more than four million sustained injuries. Factor in air pollution and it is not far-fetched to see that automated vehicles could have a positive impact on life expectancy.

Teen Pregnancy: If cars provided the privacy necessary to allow a rise in teen pregnancy in the 1950s, the autonomous car, and lack of car ownership could reverse it.

Auto Insurance: Industry analysts are already predicting in a few years auto insurance rates could be a fraction of what they are today. That’s not great news for the companies with a big book of business in auto insurance. Moreover, in addition to fewer accidents, the coming changes could mean less individual ownership of vehicles, shrinking the market for auto insurance. Automation is expected to be adopted by the trucking industry even sooner, so insurers are likely planning for diminishing profits in commercial areas as well.

Some of the other changes include a possible lowering of the drinking age, less car theft, fewer road trips and fewer auto mechanics. Some have ascribed socio-economic changes in the ability to own a car, but to me eliminating the necessity of car ownership and maintenance can only benefit those who currently can not afford to own a car. It could also have military implications as those entering the service as cars on the battlefield are unlikely to be automated and someone with the experience of driving a vehicle may some day be hard to find. Car chases and smash-up derbies will also not be possible.

It may also be the end of drive-time radio and it may not be a great time to take up a career in pizza delivery or taxi driving. Goodbye double crust pledge drive.

Cover Photo: Auto Accident at White House, 1911, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 via Wikimedia Commons.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me