Forbes hypothesizes that self-driving cars, what Google calls robotic cars, will arrive in three phases. First, what I think of as the “toy phase”: Over the next ten years, a small percentage of cars will be self-driving, but laws will require a licensed driver to be ready, hands-on-the-wheel, to take over. Next, about thirty years from now, laws will catch up with technology, so you can be drunk in the backseat, or send your kid to grandma’s house by himself; but most cars will still be privately owned. Finally, farther in the future, the transportation cloud will emerge. Cars will be entirely autonomous and few people will own one: Most cars will be robotic taxis.
I hope the Forbes time line is pessimistic. Some stories support Forbes. Others covering the same news offer more hope. Everyone thinks the laws will lag behind the technology. That is hardly a new phenomenon.
Like all technological advances, Forbes suggests robotic cars will change society. People will be able to travel more quickly and driving time will be free time, which will lead to an outflow of people from cities. Robotic cars are “going to change everything / be unbelievably disruptive to basically every business that sells atoms to consumers,” a real earth-shaker. Short-hop airplane flights will disappear. People won’t care much about a car’s looks – how much do you care what a taxi looks like? So manufacturing will take a hit and not just car manufacturing. People will buy less stuff of all sorts since rented items will arrive quickly and conveniently, right to your door, via robotic delivery.
There is some worry that people will not accept cars that drive themselves. People perceive higher risk when they have less control or when a risk is new to them. But people downplay the risks they choose to take voluntarily, or when they see a big benefit. I think people will accept robotic cars as easily as they accept flying.
I don’t know what will happen to society. It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. All I know is: I want a robotic taxi and I can’t wait fifty years. Hurry up, future.