Social Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles

English: Catford Road (South Circular Road), L...
Perhaps Autonomous mobile homes will cruise round here: Catford Road (South Circular Road), London SE6 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My previous article on Self Driving Cars covered some of the technical points, that self driving cars are starting to look safer than human drivers and that there are traffic management benefits to most vehicles beingĀ self-driving. But there’s more to it than that. For a start there will be more than just ‘cars’ that drive themselves around, so properly one ought to talk about autonomous vehicles (AV).

No More Professional Drivers

The most obvious consequence of autonomous vehicles is that those who drive for a living will rapidly be out of a job. The cost base for taxis, truck haulage and bus companies involves driver pay plus the costs of the vehicle. I expect that initially there will be an added capital cost for the autonomous version of vehicles, but that will be more than offset by savings from driver pay, reduced insurance costs (because the AV are safer than the humans) and also increased usage of the vehicle, because in most jurisdictions there are limits on driver hours.

This is not a benefit if you are a driver, but in the same way that other skills have been automated (e.g. robots used to build vehicles) then this is more or less inevitable. There may still be humans in some of the vehicles, but they’ll be for security or unloading and they won’t be paid the same as the professional drivers used to be. They’ll also not really have limits on hours, because mostly they are just passengers. Expect them to be minimum wage jobs, maybe even split shift and only paid when they’re loading or unloading.

The current owner/operators of heavy goods vehicles might carve out a niche where they live in the vehicle and deal with the security and unloading as well as managing their business while it cruises the motorways from delivery to delivery. They’d get a lot more mileage in without the driving limits.

Mobile Homes & Commuting

Given the cost of living in major cities there is a niche for a mobile home that cruises between parking areas. So long as it costs you less to maintain and operate than a city centre flat plus the commuting then some single people, and perhaps couples, might live in an autonomous mobile home. It would know where they need to be and when and would drift towards the destination on a low impact path (low impact in the sense that it would be looking for a steady fuel efficient speed and avoid areas where sudden braking or manoeuvring might be needed).

In the context of London you could orbit via the M25 or the North & South Circular until almost time for being dropped off at an easy walking distance from work. The mobile home would then park itself somewhere (or keep on orbiting) until you signalled that you were on the way back to the pick up point. If you needed to work in a different location, or had a day off and wanted to be somewhere else it could drive you there while you slept.

The key point here is that your front door would move itself to where you wanted it to be for when you needed it to be there. The AV would do this as fuel efficiently and as safely as possible (and possibly with solar panels all over it to help save fuel costs). While not likely to be a first option for many people it would solve some affordable housing problems and also make it easier for job seekers to cover larger areas without wasting awake time with commuting. I doubt it would be any good for families, but certainly something that some people might find attractive. There could also be a strong holiday rental aspect to these vehicles.

I expect that fewer people will be commuting overall in a decade or two, but those that do may well go further than drivers do now. Autonomous vehicles potentially make all commutes into public transport type commutes. You can work, read, watch video or even sleep in transit when someone else (the vehicle) is doing the driving. This can make you more tolerant of time spent in transit, because you are getting productive use from it. While AV should eventually do away with the traffic jam, because they’ll route efficiently to keep everyone moving satisfactorily, before it manages that it will at least take away some of the pain.

Renting Vehicles

There are already schemes to rent vehicles by the hour, or by the day. However they need a fair amount of infrastructure to operate. With an AV fleet you can simply rent the right size of vehicle you need for the journey you want to do and then return it the moment you step out at your destination. More like Uber than Zipcar. If the pricing is right many people will stop trying to own their own vehicles and just use pooled ones.

Someone will still need to act as a fleet manager, but the costs of maintaining depots and dealing with deliveries and returns go out of the window. With a bit of optimisation a number of small parking areas (likely on street in areas not needing permits) can be used instead of depots. When ordered the closest available vehicle will make its way to the customer for use. If the routes are booked in advance there will be the possibility of pre-positioning and forward optimisation. AV might even stay at the last drop off point until they are next needed, on the basis that people tend to go and return on the same route.

There will be a blurring here between how we currently rent cars and how we use taxis. The future model is a hybrid of both of these. It might even blur into how we use busses and trains. Someone is likely to grab a niche that picks up multiple folk along the way and bill everyone for the appropriate fraction of the journey they consume. It’s a startup waiting to happen.

Freedom for non-drivers

Another thing that autonomous vehicles will bring is more freedom for people that cannot drive. Teenagers and older people, as well as those that haven’t had the time or the money to invest in driving lessons (not to mention those that are incapable) will be able to get around in AVs, providing that they can afford them. That said, I expect that the rental costs will be relatively modest twenty or so years down the road, certainly cheaper than a taxi is now (most of the cost is in paying the driver). For the affluent families it will be reasonable to let the almost grown up kids take the car out for the night. The AV will be safer than they would be now, cheaper to insure and there is no need to pay for expensive driving lessons. For an 18 year old an AV is likely to be their cheapest way to get mobile. Also, there’s no worries about drink driving, as the car won’t be drinking!

For older folk at the other end of the driving spectrum there should be less worry about capacity to drive when faculties start to dwindle. The car should know where home is, and could even be pre-programmed with an itinerary by a carer or relative if necessary. For those in full possession of their faculties that wouldn’t be necessary, but the car can take the strain and ensure that they can get around and enjoy life.

Anyone got any other thoughts on how Autonomous Vehicles will change society?