What impact can autonomous cars have on the society?
Let continue to look at some short- and medium-term (2018-2040) impact autonomous cars can have on the society.
Soon after the arrival of autonomous vehicles, we will see jobs disappearing; taxi drivers, truck drivers, and bus drivers will early on feel the backside of the technological evolution. The same for airline pilots, boat captains, and train conductors. An autonomous truck can drive 24/7, more energy efficient and safer than a human, without the transport company having to pay a salary or a motel room. Shorter time, better quality and cheaper. It doesn’t get any better from a process point of view! While these jobs also include other aspects like customer contact there is simply no business model for human drivers as soon as the prices decrease for these vehicles. As mentioned before the number of cars produced will probably also decrease, hence the workforce needed to produce cars will be less. Jobs disappearing as an effect of new technology isn’t something new but there are reasons to believe that there will be fewer and fewer of other types of jobs to take instead. AI is just in its infancy and it’s not a far-fetched assumption that AI will take over more and more jobs. But that hypothesis is for another post.
Other, more indirectly affected, jobs will also take a hit from the arrival of autonomous cars. Fewer policemen will be needed for traffic-related crimes (people can drink & “drive” and no one will speed anymore). Also, when no car is parked in the city anymore we don’t need people giving tickets. And fewer people hurt in traffic means a decreased need for nurses in the hospitals and less demand for tow trucks. This is turn bring down costs for public service (where police and hospitals are public).
During the transition period (2018-2040 as argued) second-hand cars (manually driven, often with combustion engines) will fall in price substantially, obviously assuming demand decreases faster than the supply. That means that it will probably be more short-term economical to own a manually driven vehicle. If gas prices increase it can be a long-term economical trap though.
Assuming that the lower class will own manually driven cars, as opposed to the middle class that will pay-per-ride (including a subscription model), it’s probable that we will see drivers of manual cars “bully” autonomous cars by exploiting the safety margins of these cars. Drivers of manual cars might drive quite aggressively making the autonomous cars drive slower and making way for the manual car. If this extends to a big problem it can be assumed that the transition period to 100% autonomous vehicles will be shortened because the ones with money and power in the society are sitting in the autonomous vehicles.
Will productivity and logistics improve?
We lose a lot of time driving and queuing (Americans spend approx 300 hours driving per year). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will spend the newly acquired time increasing productivity. Maybe we will just look at movies, play games or sleep. Some increased productivity can be expected though.
When it comes to logistics we need to be smart so that we don’t end up creating even worse traffic and bottlenecks than today. If everyone owned their own self-driving car it’s probable that the car would drive even more than the cars drive today, picking up kids/groceries etc. We wouldn’t have to think about being logistically smart because we wouldn’t individually gain anything doing so. But if everyone were egoistic it would be worse for all. This is an example of the prisoner’s dilemma. Today we prefer to be smart about the logistics because we lose a lot of time if we are not. We combine picking up the kids with a visit to the supermarket… well that’s actually a poor example because having the kids at the supermarket could very well just be the source of wasted time. But I think you understand what I mean. The point is that if we owned our self-driving cars the result could be that the cars would drive even more than today, inefficiently. From a political point of view, this is probably not a wanted position.
Let’s mention some other types of potential impact
- Prices on goods decrease: As a result of cheaper and faster transports prices for goods will probably decrease.
- The change starts in cities: It will be harder to share vehicles in the countryside hence it will take several years until the rural population finds attractive business models for autonomous cars. From a technological point of view, it’s also more difficult to drive off road.
- Liability: We need to work out the liability issues. It can be a combination of different suppliers, from hardware to driving software to legal rules and other parts.
- Security: How can we ensure that no one can control the cars once they all are connected to internet? Maybe they should not be connected to internet but a more controlled network?
- More cabin suppliers: When the cars are more specialised it’s probable that the number of suppliers of cabins will increase.
- Frequent updates: Not just software will be updated frequently, also hardware will be updated more frequently as a result of higher wear and tear in shared vehicles.
- Improvements for blind and handicapped people: It will probably be easier for blind and handicapped people to order a transport.
- Kids won’t drive: Our kids might never have to learn to drive.
- Indoor driving: Electric cars will open up for indoor driving, at least to some extent.
In part 5 we will look at the potential long-term impact on society.