The gradual transition to autonomous vehicles is in full swing. Tesla recently upgraded the software on existing Model S sedans to activate “autopilot” mode, which enables the vehicle to drive itself on the highway. They had the foresight to install the required hardware on cars before the software was ready, and are likely the only manufacturer (so far) that has the ability to remotely upgrade vehicles that have already been sold.
The hype about the effects of autonomous vehicles continues. Websites and discussion groups are loaded with exaggerated predictions about everything from unemployed delivery drivers to the demise of vehicle ownership.
Let’s take a realistic look at a few of these issues and dispel some myths.
Myth #1: People will no longer need to own vehicles
I must admit that this idea baffles me. I’m assuming it is made by someone who has never owned a car for any length of time, and definitely not by anyone who has kids.
The fact that people own vehicles today tells us that they will also want to own them in the future. There are many advantages to owning a vehicle over hiring one as required. My friends can recognize my car when I pick them up, and kids will recognize their parents’ cars after school.
Vehicles are reflections of our personal tastes. I like the design of my car. I like the colour and the interior. The seat is adjusted to my preferences, as are the other options on the car. Some of my preferences can be transmitted to an autonomous vehicle through my mobile phone, but there are many option configurations that are specific to each car model and cannot be easily translated from one car to the next.
Most people keep personal belongings in their cars; medicine, makeup, sunglasses, or a child’s favourite toy. It would be annoying to always have to drag larger items back and forth between your home and your car du jour, especially for those living in apartments. In the summertime the car’s trunk may hold golf clubs or beach chairs, and in the wintertime it may be ice skates, or scarves and hats for the kids. Many people have custom attachments to their cars such as bike racks, dog crates and child seats. It will be very impractical to have to install and remove them every time you call a car.
And I haven’t even mentioned rural areas of low population density or cottage goers and their SUVs.
Conclusion: Personal vehicle ownership is not going away anytime soon, regardless of who’s driving.
Myth #2: Parking lots will be empty because people will call cars as they need them
If I own my autonomous vehicle, I will definitely still want to park it, whether I’m at work or the mall. In order to reduce the number of times they have to hire a car, those who don’t own vehicles are more likely to spend the day running errands that require driving. This means that it they will likely be driving to a number of places to pick up things and will be storing them in the car as they move from place to place. They will want to park the car when they go from the mall to the grocery store and not have to carry the entire day’s purchases everywhere they go. If autonomous vehicles enable people without driver’s licenses to travel in their own cars, this may even increase the traffic in some parking lots.
Conclusion: Parking lot traffic will not likely change drastically, especially in any place that involves shopping.
Myth #3: Traffic congestion will be a thing of the past
While it is true that autonomous vehicles will eventually be able to communicate with each other and coordinate their movements, this does not mean that congestion will simply go away. There is at least one crazy video floating around the Internet that shows a simulation of autonomous vehicles whizzing through an intersection in all directions at once, narrowly missing each other. The creator is apparently attempting to show that autonomous vehicles will not require traffic lights and therefore would not have to stop at intersections. This would only work if we outlaw pedestrians and never let them cross the street. It also assumes that every vehicle is autonomous, so we would also have to outlaw bicycles and motorcycles (An autonomous motorcycle wouldn’t be practical because the motion of a motorcycle is largely controlled by the shifting of the rider’s weight. A motorcycle deciding to turn on its own would likely throw the rider off balance and onto the road).
If autonomous vehicles give mobility to those who cannot drive there will be an increase in the number vehicles on the road. And at any time, in addition to the vehicles that are currently carrying people, the road will have to accommodate all of the empty vehicles that are on their way to pick someone up.
Conclusion: While traffic congestion will likely be reduced on highways, there will always be a requirement on most roads to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles that are not autonomous, as well as an increase in the number of people traveling at any one time. This means traffic lights and congestion will not go away.
Myth #4: Taxi drivers will be eliminated
While autonomous vehicles will be able to transport most people without the need of a human driver, there are many situations in which a knowledgeable and able bodied human will be required. Many taxis are used by people who are not physically able to drive and quite often these people need help getting into or out of the vehicle or with carrying heavy items. Regardless of who’s driving the car, someone will still need to put the walker or the wheelchair in the trunk, or unload the groceries.
There’s also the question of whether autonomous taxis will be programmed to break the law. In most large cities, taxis will stop in “no stopping” or “no parking” zones to pick up passengers. Having to find a legal spot for a taxi to stop during rush hour may not be practical in many places.
For passengers unfamiliar with their surroundings, a conversation with a knowledgeable taxi driver can be infinitely more convenient than trying to find information online. Recommendations on everything from restaurants to tourist attractions to which parts of town to avoid at night can mean the difference between a great experience and an unpleasant one.
Conclusion: It is likely that the number of taxi drivers will be greatly reduced but hopefully not eliminated.
Myth#4: Delivery drivers will be obsolete
Anyone making this suggestion (and there are many) really hasn’t thought this through, and certainly has never worked in the delivery business. The typical fantasy is that a delivery vehicle will pull up and the recipient will enter a code on her phone to release the package. This would require extreme modifications to delivery vehicles to make them something akin to mobile community mailboxes, with each package being secured in its own compartment. Of course this would only work if packages were of predictable sizes.
The act of driving is a small part in the life of the delivery person. In order to maximize efficiency, delivery companies load as many packages as possible into each vehicle. Due to varying characteristics such as weight, size, and fragility, the packages are not always placed in the order that they will be delivered. A driver often has to rearrange packages numerous times during a trip, each time ensuring that the cargo is secure enough to avoid being damaged.
The second part of that fantasy is that everyone who receives a package would be willing to walk to the delivery vehicle to pick it up. Many deliveries are to offices and other locations where the recipient is working. It would be crazy to expect people to walk out to the street to meet delivery vehicles.
In the real world, once the vehicle reaches its destination, the driver must sort through the packages to find the ones for that specific address. Then deliver them to the proper person.
Food deliveries have the same issues. Until a pizza learns to walk itself to the door, the delivery driver’s job is secure.
In the case of long-distance trucking, there likely will be a severe impact on the number of drivers required, though it seems unlikely that unaccompanied trucks would be roaming the highways. These trucks will be programmed for safety, so all it would take for someone to rob the truck would be to step in front of it on a deserted highway, then help themselves to any cargo. Of course there would be security cameras and other equipment on the truck, but it is not hard to imagine professional thieves disguising themselves and making a quick getaway.
A more likely scenario is that a truck driver will always be in the vehicle, but not always driving. Currently many jurisdictions have rules about how many hours per day a trucker can drive before taking a rest break. This may change so that the driver can sleep while the truck is driving itself, thus enabling longer hours, fewer stops, and faster deliveries. The trucking profession will not be eliminated, but the number of drivers required may be greatly reduced.
Conclusion: Autonomous vehicles alone are not enough to replace the functions of food and parcel delivery drivers, though there will be a significant impact to drivers in the large freight business.
There are daily reports in the mainstream media of the rapid progress of autonomous vehicles, and while our transportation habits will be significantly changed, we must take a realistic approach to identifying the real issues in a sea of hype.