Even assuming that we do have a future of self-driving cars to look forward to (flying cars have existed for a while, but have never taken off) it’s not likely that they will be all that much of a game-changer the way that some are predicting.
A recent study by IHS Automotive predicted that nearly every car on the road in 2050 will be self-driving; in that kind of world, in which our nation’s highways are populated by hordes of self-driving vehicles packed tightly together at higher speeds and with greater fuel efficiency, massive investments in rail infrastructure or new bus networks won’t make much sense.
Futurism is fun for the whole family, but the self-driving car is not that much of a game-changer. They will help the disabled get around and in Singapore style they may make traffic navigation more efficient, but one of the major reasons that we have public transportation in urban areas is population density.
Self-driving cars won’t make Manhattan more drivable and they won’t stop Los Angeles drivers from complaining about their commutes.
Rental cars are available today. The only thing that self-driving cars bring to the party is that they would allow non-drivers to use them. And that’s not much of a game changer. The only real difference is the effort involved in obtaining a license.
Public transportation will still be around because it’s more affordable to the end users, if not the taxpayers, and because in some areas, it’s easier to take the bus or the subway than it is to drive or keep a car.
Those who use public transportation for financial reasons won’t have that problem solved by a self-driving car. And dense urban centers won’t be able to accommodate millions of self-driving cars any better than they can accommodate millions of regular cars.
Self-driving cars are the latest and greatest transportation option, but who can guess what will replace them in the coming decades? A nation criss-crossed with Hyperloops? Ubiquitous telepresence technology?
Honestly, I suspect nothing. We’re not all that good at big projects and there’s only so far we can push the existing technology. A hyperloop would be neat, but it would be a huge project that government would fail at and I’m not too confident that private industry will tackle.
The majority of drivers will prefer to go on driving cars, but may not be allowed to if we continue converging toward an authoritarian technocracy.