A View from 10,000 Feet

The concept of an autonomous car has been around for many, many decades. In fact it predates the construction of our interstate system (though not the idea of an interstate) and it significantly predates the modern computer. General Motors first popularized the idea at the World’s Fair in 1939 with an immensely popular exhibit called “Futurama.” But it wasn’t until the past decade that the necessary technologies had advanced, in terms of both sophistication and affordability, to the point that autonomous cars had any significant hope of becoming a reality.   

Today advances in autonomous car technology progress at a staggering pace, especially given the complexity of the problem. In 2005, not a single autonomous car was capable of successfully completing DARPA’s Grand Challenge. Today, every major automotive manufacturer, in addition to an ever expanding army of other companies and startups, is actively testing autonomous car technology. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, is already piloting this technology with the public. Several more companies will join their ranks by the end of 2018. This is not to say every barrier has been conquered or every problem solved, but most would argue that broad deployment of the technology is merely a matter of time.

The question, then, is not whether this technology will be or even when it will be but, more importantly, when will it be ubiquitous. When will autonomous vehicles displace the bulk of manually driven vehicles (at least within our cities)? This question is important because it is at this point when you will begin to see a fundamental transformation of our urban environments. This question is far trickier to answer and it will invariably happen more rapidly in some places than others. Some have argued this transition may happen within the next decade and some have argued it won’t happen for a generation.

Of course, the fact that the autonomous vehicle is a soluble problem, doesn’t mean it is worth the significant time and money required to solve it. So why do it at all? This depends on your perspective. As a private citizen the potential benefits are a safer, cheaper, faster and more accessible trip. As a commercial institution the benefits are better access to labor and a more efficient and reliable supply chain. As a society the benefits are lower infrastructure costs, cleaner air, less traffic congestion, fewer traffic accidents, less light pollution and a more efficient emergency response system. As a developer of this technology, the benefits are greater revenue and profit margins than car sales can produce. And this just captures a few of the benefits.

As many benefits as this technology offers, it is not all sugar and roses. Many enjoy the freedom and experience of driving their own car. There is reason to believe this technology may translate to regulations that will limit and eventually prohibit this freedom in the future. Privacy in today’s society is already experiencing a full frontal assault. Computer operated vehicles that know their occupants and their destination will only exacerbate privacy concerns.

Unquestionably the most costly consequence of driverless vehicle technology will be the decimation of an entire sector of jobs. There are millions of people in America alone that make their living by driving. Driverless vehicles will make these jobs obsolete. The damage won’t end there though. Fewer vehicles will be needed to meet transportation demand, which will mean fewer manufacturing jobs and fewer mechanics. Fewer accidents will mean fewer body shops and fewer tow truck jobs. And these are just a few of the predictable consequences. The impacts will ripple through an economy that has done few favors for working-class Americans in the modern era.


The implications of this technology will be even more fundamental than the surficial costs and benefits noted above. Driverless vehicles are likely to alter the very fabric of our urban environments at the macro and micro scale. The urban form implications of transportation innovations have been well studied. The street car, the car and the highway system reduced costs of travel and expanded the footprint of our cities. The driverless car may have a similar impact. The driverless car will also change the way our streets are designed. Traffic signals may become obsolete, roads may shrink, lighting for vehicles will be unnecessary, et cetera.

Of course, the future of this technology is not a given. Any of an infinite variety of futures may unfold. But we need not be passive observers as this technology is deployed. We can and should participate in shaping that future so that we can maximize the potential benefits and minimize the potential damage.