No, Self-Driving Cars Won’t Replace Public Transportation


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.

  • john

    People in fly over country who have long commutes of over 20 minutes one way will use their self driving car as a mobile office. I can see self driving cars improving life.

    I have also seen bus companies run routes to the state capital from communities more than 60 miles away when they identified enough state employees who were willing to pay. It worked out great. the bus riders got to live in a smaller community that wasn’t so big that it could easily be mismanaged. they saved on commuting costs, read a novel or visit along the way.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      I’m sure they will improve life, I just don’t think it’s about to replace public transportation especially in densely populated areas.

  • alericKong

    Accidents may go down, but security concerns will go up. It will take a long time to pay back the financial investment and infrastructure. Streets will be safer if we end subsidies for illegal immigration and broken families. Drunk drivers and wasted capital is saved, and we have to build nothing.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      There is that.

      It will also mean a loss of autonomy. Our planners keep salivating over Singapore for a reason.

      • ZZ

        Singapore isn’t a country, it’s a country club – complete with migrant laborers to do all the real work and a complacent elite class of ethnic Chinese overlords. You couldn’t make a more boring and sterile country if you had PBS plan it.

        • Daniel Greenfield

          There would probably be more canings under PBS rule

  • glpage

    Considering that the control systems of some current cars can be hacked, the possibility of someone hacking into a group of self-driving cars and hijacking them for some ends, maybe just mayhem, maybe to shut down the highway system, would exist and would be a major safety and security concern.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      Sabotaging the traffic reporting system alone would cause a huge mess.

  • O[b]ama

    Nothing is more conservative than limiting the power of
    Police patrolmen are a form of government.
    Computer-driven cars will be programmed to obey all traffic
    Thus, self-driving cars will make police patrols less
    The proliferation of driverless cars will facilitate
    limitations on police power.

    • ZZ

      The pigs would pick up the slack by terrorizing the public with foot patrols.

      • O[b]ama

        9/11 is the telephone number for police assistance.
        We can limit police power to 911 response.
        We can render police powerless to make an arrest without a 9-11 telephone complaint.
        First, we need cars driven by law-abiding computers.

        • ZZ

          Good point about 911 restrictions, but you lost me on law abiding computers. Maybe I can get a law abiding computer to wipe my tushy after a hard day’s work and my flying car commute.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      I suspect it would be the other way around. This would allow the government to control everyone’s car at any time.

  • ZZ

    Public transportation is a joke. America is a car country. America is not NYC. Thank God.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      And car country doesn’t need self-driving cars.

      • ZZ

        Yeah. Where would we be as a society without road trips? Fawn Leibowitz would want us to keep our cars.

  • carltjohnson

    Transporters? only if I am in a hurry, Flying cars? YEAH!…so long as it makes great sounds. Self driving cars? No thanks…not interested, borrrrrring!

  • Michael Rodriguez

    As a professional transportation planner and economist, I disagree somewhat. Its about the cost equation, and value of time is part of cost. The user gets much more value of time being passive than actively driving. Therefore, an hour sitting being driven around is not as bad as an hour actively driving. This is why people pay for chauffeurs, and many drivers will switch to a self-driving car system at scale in larger urban areas.

    Now about transit: if self-driving cars can deliver mobility at a lower cost per passenger-mile than bus transit, then buses are unlikely to survive in areas outside of core urban routes. Transit is safe in major urban centers. When you get into suburban and rural areas, it makes much more sense to have a fleet of demand-responsive self-driving vehicles than to pay the extremely high cost-per-hour and cost-per-mile that is a bus.

    Third, what if the buses are self-driving? That’s a labor issue (because rail systems can already “self-drive” but they don’t due to “safety” concerns brought on by transit labor). You could cheaply operate a bus fleet and take a large cost component out (the labor). This could save agencies significant amounts of money, especially in urban areas, and possibly improve service.

    Finally, paratransit for many users may be replaced. Those paratransit users who need physical assistance will still have to have a person helping them, but it would be much cheaper to shuttle the elderly around on self-driving vehicles than these existing systems. And even if there’s a person needed to help the user get in and out of the vehicle, you could likely have a lower-cost person who doesn’t have to have a professional license do the task of just riding along.