Driverless cars – and how they may affect society

Travelling into the Future with No-one at the Wheel

Self-driving cars.
They’ll be fantastic.
It’ll be like everyone having their very own personal chauffeur, but one who doesn’t take up a whole seat and who doesn’t need to be chatted to or otherwise recognised as a human being who is inconveniently sharing the same intimate space as oneself.
The Jeremiahs amongst us may argue that such cars will keep crashing, that they’ll squash migrating frogs (which are already threatened with decimation by fungus) or that they’ll be used as suicide-driverless bombs, however the optimists among us know that technology will be able to take care of all of those things, so there’s no need to fret.
With driverless cars no one will need to pass a driving test anymore and everyone will be able to travel regardless of age or ability; children will be able to do the school run without having to take their fractious parents along with them; grown-ups will be able to go to the pub without having to draw lots to choose a designated driver; old people will be able to remain mobile well beyond the age where they would otherwise have to hang up their car keys. Everyone will be able to go wherever they want, whenever they want, simply by speaking a destination into the vehicle’s navigation system.
It’ll be a new utopian age of travel. Even better than the last one.
However, you know what utopias can be like.
Don’t imagine for a moment that the switch over to driverless cars will mean that everything stays the same other than the small fact that no one needs to actually do any of the driving anymore.
We may find our self-driving vehicles propelling us into a future that isn’t quite the one that we had in mind.
We need to navigate with caution.

self-driving car cartoon

The first, and possibly most predictable, change that driverless cars may usher in (other than the need for no driver of course) could be a sudden leap in commuting distances. People would be able to eat their breakfast on the journey to work and to catch up on their all-important social media interactions on the way home, all from the cosy bubble of personal space that is their self-driven vehicle.
The resulting extended commuting distances may entail more than a simple expanding of the commuter belts around our urban centres though – it may involve a mass migration of the population from the cities to the countryside. The ensuing rural building blight may be hideous to behold as houses sprout on former farmland (I say former farmland because we’ll probably be getting most of our food from Peru and Kenya by then, no doubt delivered to our shores and stores by self-navigating cargo ship and self-driving lorry). The concomitant blight on the cities due to the abandoned urban housing stock may ensure that, Detroit style, everyone but the most deprived of citizens feels compelled to up sticks and move countryward, whether they want to or not. If the value of city properties drops at the same time that those in the countryside rise, people may rationalise that they have little choice but to decamp to the country while they can still afford to.

The paradigm shifts brought about by driverless cars won’t only come in the form of major population shifts though, there’ll be massive cultural shifts too.
For instance, people may stop socialising locally and instead may socialise nationally (or even internationally).
This may be the antidote to the current epidemic of screen-only socialising, so in some ways it may be welcomed.
People may happily jump into an autonomous vehicle and travel huge distances of an evening in order to visit their friends or family. As long as people don’t spend more time in the car than they normally spend staring at digital devices they’ll still be in credit time-wise. As if that’d matter anyway.
In my youth (the 1970s) fun-loving people such as myself would be prepared to drive maybe a hundred miles or so to go to a friend’s party. But it’d be a major expedition – usually involving a mechanical breakdown while attempting to cross the Pennines in an overloaded Mini (version 1.1) – so we’d have to make a weekend of it. With driverless cars it’ll be possible to travel to parties at the other end of the country, and then to sleep off the hangover on the journey home before repeating the activity the following night. Hey! – why not just continue the party in the car?

This may not be too bad a thing if people just go round to other people’s houses for their personal interactions, but I can’t imagine that it’d stop there.
“Let’s meet at Stonehenge.”
Can you imagine it? Practically no tourist attraction will be spared the tsunami of visitors who will descend on it for birthday parties, hen parties, tea parties. Fortunately, parking the driverless vehicles once the passengers have been decanted won’t be a problem – despite the crowds – as the vehicles will either be hired in a similar way to taxis now, and will thus simply speed off on another journey, or they’ll be privately owned and will be capable of taking themselves off, passengerless, to any convenient parking space within striking distance, where they’ll wait patiently for the phone signal that summons them back to their owners. (When I say ‘phone’ here I’m referring to phones of the future, where the individual components of the phone are probably implanted biotechnically into the appropriate parts of the human body, thus obviating the considerable inconvenience of having to have the phone surgically grafted onto the palm of the hand as I think is the case now.)
The location of a destination will become irrelevant as the investment in effort involved in getting anywhere drops, with the decision about whether to visit a place becoming the result of a whim rather than of a complex analysis of investments, costs and benefits. The result will be that once distance is no impediment to visiting a place, the crowds who are visiting will probably become the impediment. This raises the spectre that because everywhere can be visited, nowhere will be worth visiting.
It wouldn’t be so bad if all of the visitors to a place actually harboured an interest in being there, but unfortunately quite a few of them will be there solely because being there is what people do. In many a historic stately home across the land the paintings lining the walls of the grand hall will be obscured by the hoards of glassy eyed zombies staggering along like an army of the undead in search of the teashop.

There’s an outside chance that island locations may partly escape the constant flow of visitors, as the journeys to them would involve a change of transport systems in order to reach them (at least during the infancy of driverless transport). Stonehenge may be deluged with visitors but the Ring of Brodgar may be spared, for a while at least.
Houses on islands may become extremely desirable places to live due to their isolation from the unceasing flow of whim-driven travellers on the mainland, making island living affordable only to the super rich.

The self-driving vehicle of the future probably won’t be like the car as we know it today of course, with two front seats, three back seats and a boot. It won’t simply be a car with no steering wheel. Not for long anyway.
It’ll conceivably evolve into something more akin to a spacious living capsule, complete with tables and chairs and probably beds. It’ll be like a sort of futuristic motor home, but one that doesn’t leave scratch marks on other vehicles because it’s misjudged its width.
But hang on – once you’ve got a futuristic motor home in which you can endlessly navigate the highways and byways of the world, why not do so? Why not navigate endlessly? Why not sell the house (that you’ve just bought in the country) and buy the luxury self-propelled living pod? Maybe the one with the built-in self-heating hot tub.
Give me one good reason why you wouldn’t want to do that?
Once you’ve got it, it’ll be first stop Stonehenge.

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