Driverless Cars Will Change Our Lives. Soon.

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 2:32 PM EST

Felix Salmon is no fan of cars, but after attending a panel on smart cars he's rethinking things. Driverless cars are making impressive strides, he says correctly, and that could be a bigger deal than we think. Big enough, in fact, that it might make cars superior to rail in already developed areas:

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today....Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things....therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough [] self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

I don't really need any convincing on this front. I think that genuine self-driving cars will be available within a decade and that they'll be big game changers. Even bigger than Felix suggests. When you're not actually driving a car yourself, for example, you don't care much about how powerful it is. So you'll be happy to chug along in a super-efficient car, reading a book or playing on your phone. You'll be more willing to share a car, since automated systems will be able to quickly put together carpools with guaranteed maximums on wait time. And of course, driverless cars will be fundamentally more fuel-efficient since computers can drive cars better than humans can.

There's much more, and while I'll happily concede that it's all speculative, I really don't think it's that speculative any more. The technology is coming, and it has some pretty obvious implications. It will affect some things (commuting, event transportation) more than others (long-distance driving, short hops), but in the end it's going to affect everything. How many people will even bother owning cars if they can buy a share in a car service for a quarter of the price with a guaranteed wait maximum of five minutes, or for a tenth of the price with a maximum wait of 15 minutes? Not too many.

This stuff is coming. I honestly have no idea why so many people are still convinced that, for some reason, true driverless cars can't possibly ever happen. Sure they can. And we don't have much longer to wait, either.