Depending on which particular tech luminary you listen to, self-driving cars are somewhere between one and ten years away from reality. But one thing everyone agrees with is that they’re coming, and they’re going to fundamentally change transportation.
The outstanding questions are when fully autonomous cars are going to appear on our streets, and when they’ll be smart enough to entirely change how we own cars.
The Economist took a deep dive into autonomous vehicles in a recent special report. According to analysis from UBS, the per-mile cost could be brought down so low by autonomous vehicles that it makes huge financial sense for consumers to stop owning cars, and just use a self-driving Uber to get everywhere:
Ride-hailing services in the rich world currently cost around $2.50 per mile, compared with about $1.20 per mile to own and operate a private car (see chart). But the driver accounts for about 60% of the cost of ride-hailing. UBS, an investment bank, reckons that automation, competition and electrification (which makes cars more expensive to buy but much cheaper to run) will cut the cost of ride-hailing by 70%, to about $0.70 per mile. So a typical Western household driving 10,000 miles a year could ditch its car, use robotaxis and save $5,000 a year. And there are other advantages, explains Mr Thrun: “You can be drunk, you don’t have to look for parking, and your kids can take the car.”
Moving from a private-car industry to one where everyone shares a fleet of self-driving vehicles has tremendous implications for the cities we live in as well. Parking spaces can be removed, since there will be fewer cars on the street, and private vehicles could park themselves at out-of-town depots and only come in to the city when summoned. Intersections can be redesigned, and lanes taken out to widen sidewalks. Another article in the special report examines the effect on urban planning, particularly on how development would be affected:
On the one hand, a switch to shared AVs by urban dwellers could lead to denser cities as some of the space currently used for parking is reallocated to housing. New high-density housing is already being planned with pick-up and drop-off zones for ride-hailing vehicles, and fewer parking spaces. On the other hand, AVs could also encourage sprawl by making long commutes more acceptable, because riders will be able to work or even sleep on the move. “The biggest negative of suburban living is the driving and the amount of space that has to be devoted to cars,” says Joel Kotkin of Chapman University. By doing away with driving and making city centres easier to access, AVs will increase the appeal of suburban living. So it seems likely that AVs will make cities both denser and more spread out, depending on the road-pricing regime.