Driverless cars used to be nothing more than the wet dream of engineers and science fiction nerds, the kind of thing they'd rock themselves to sleep fantasizing about.
But now that we've reached 2016, the future, that wet dream has become a messy reality. Actual autonomous machines sweep across our roads every day. We've talked about the safety issues of these before and how they're likely to murder every one of us. But the widespread adoption of these cars has potentially even greater implications, even world changing ones. Things like ...
Currently, the laws around self-driving cars are both simple and complicated. They're simple in the sense that there are damned few actual laws covering the things. That's also the complicated part.
Broadly speaking, something can be considered legal simply because no one has said otherwise, and that's kind of the situation self-driving cars find themselves in now. A few states have written laws regulating, restricting, or otherwise addressing these cars, but unfortunately, all those laws totally contradict each other. That kind of legal free-for-all has some serious consequences. Companies don't want to invest billions of dollars in something if it will shortly be made illegal, which is why many of them are now practically begging Congress to set down firmer national laws about self-driving cars.
But that's not necessarily Congress' job.
No, it's the states which normally create their own traffic laws. Federal agencies regulate the technology used in cars (think airbags, seatbelts, that kind of thing), which is obviously relevant in the case of self-driving cars. But at the moment they're reluctant to pass judgment on technology that's still so new. They'd prefer a little more research be done to find out what the "safest" type of autonomous car is before they make any regulations.
In short, self-driving cars present a really confusing overlap between traffic regulation and car technology regulation; even if the Federal government does lay down some national guidelines, you can imagine how some states -- say ones with automakers, or tech companies, or more public transportation infrastructure -- might have a different opinion on this than other states. They're not all going to be happy with a national solution, which means self-driving car regulation is going to hit a political crash test wall pretty fast. Want to see your elected representatives forcefully arguing about "ghost-riding the whip" on C-SPAN? Because it's coming ...
On-demand valet services like Luxe and Zirx came and went so fast that many people never heard of them. "Like Uber, but for parking," was the general idea, but there was no real way to make that concept profitable. The main problem being that they had to pay their fleet of human valets actual money.
Self-driving cars could be the solution. Here's how it would work. Your self-driving car drives you to the airport, gives you a kiss on the cheek, and then drives itself back to your house. A week later, you fly home, all tanned and oily, and find your car has driven back to the airport on its own and is waiting for you at Arrivals. Commuters might try the same thing. Why pay for expensive parking downtown, when you can order your car to drop you off then find free street parking five miles away?
Think about how much space is devoted to parking that sits empty almost all the time. Like a mall after hours, or a stadium when there's no game on. If self-driving cars can use our supply of parking spots a little more efficiently, we could reclaim some of that space for something more useful.
There's a but though. Those clever self-parking schemes would involve an awful lot of empty cars cruising across town to park themselves. Cars cruising around with no-one in them is not really ideal from a traffic point of view. It gets worse when you consider the possibility that at least a few geniuses will also be sending their car around the block a few times while they run errands.
This will almost certainly be one of those things politicians go to absolute war over; you can easily imagine some cities and states banning moving vehicles that don't have passengers in them. Or maybe putting in special, extra-shitty Zero-Passenger lanes where pedestrians are allowed and even encouraged to spit on cars as they pass by.
But that kind of discrimination could hurt self-driving taxi like systems, which would necessarily be empty some of the time. And those types of systems, if efficiently utilized, could lead to dramatically less congestion.
In short, the implications of it all are hard to predict, and the ultimate decision likely wouldn't be made by a traffic engineer, but an angry councilman who got stuck behind an empty Tesla for twelve blocks that morning.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images
One of the nice things about our existing system of cars and roads is that, for the most part, it doesn't really matter how nice your car is. Whether you're in a Tesla Model S or a Hyundai Pony, everyone's following the same speed limit, and using the same lanes, and parking in the same parking spots.
But that will change with the arrival of self-driving cars, because the average person isn't going to get a whiff of these for quite some time. Even the Tesla Model 3, which will supposedly come out next year and have partial autonomous capabilities, will be at least $35,000. That's not crazy expensive, but it's far from cheap, especially considering the average person drives a much less expensive used car.
And that's just Tesla's limited autopilot, which isn't quite fully autonomous yet. The real hands-off self-driving car stuff, like the tech that Google is working on, doesn't even have a price yet. Some industry experts anticipate that a decade from now, self-driving features will add $10,000 or more to the price of a car. Basically, purchasing a bare bones autopilot feature will cost you almost twice the price of a decent used Toyota.
So a lot of the benefits of self driving cars - easy parking, extra free time, exclusive lanes on the interstate - will only be experienced by the wealthy, further stoking the class warfare in this country until we inevitably storm
Trump Tower the Bastille.
Cars are basically the only place where radio still makes sense. Obviously we can't read or watch television while we're driving, but we need something to distract us, because we dare not be alone with our thoughts for even a moment.
Hence, the enduring success of the radio. You can listen to it while driving. The industry has based its entire business and advertising model around it.
Which is good, because just about anything the radio does is done better somewhere else. We've got like a billion better options for listening to music now, whether it's via streaming apps or iTunes or Youtube. Traffic reports are much more usable when you can see a map on a screen. And news radio doesn't compare very favorably to the Internet.
But all those things require your full attention, right? You can't navigate YouTube or the AP News Wire while trying to keep from steering into a bridge abutment and hurtling your passengers through the windshield and into the next world. A radio does all the work for you with minimal input required, which is why it's stuck around for so long. But with self driving cars, that need to be read to goes away. You can hand control over to your robot chauffeur and kick back with an iPad, which will probably mean the end of Top 40 radio and morning zoo shows. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, there's something else to consider -- now that your hands are free from the burden of holding the steering wheel, what's to keep you from typing up a few reports or emails for your boss during your commute?
When Blackberrys first hit the work force, one thing almost everyone complained about was the intrusiveness of the device. By making emails so accessible, it created an expectation that people could and would respond to work emails at any hour of the day, extending work hours into well beyond what they were being paid for. If you have a smartphone connected at all to your job, you've probably sprung out of bed to take care of some urgent message you just received from your boss more than once. It's like leaping into action after getting a late night text from an ex, only without the expectation of sex at the end of the rainbow.
That same deal is going to happen with the arrival of self-driving cars. An hour of sitting around with nothing to do? Tell us your manager won't start giving you some tasks to work on for the ride home. Heck, tell us you won't start volunteering to do it yourself. That expectation of being available around the clock is a two-way street, soon to be navigated by self-driving cars that allow us to be even more available.
Oh, and speaking of things that will happen a lot more in cars ...
Ok, so imagine you and your date/special someone/Craigslist respondent are riding around in a fantastic future machine that can pilot itself. You don't have to pay any attention to it, it won't give you any weird looks, and it doesn't require any kind of conversation. It's happy to just drive wherever you tell it to drive, completely oblivious to whatever you and your fellow passenger are doing.
There has never been a finer recipe for boning. Hell, it would be weird not to have sex in a self-driving car, especially on long road trips. Which means the highways, byways, and thoroughfares of the nation, at any given time of day, are going to be loaded with foggy sex pods. It varies from state to state, but as of now, having sex in a car is considered sex in public, which is a misdemeanor. But all of those laws assume that you're parked in a neighborhood or rest stop or something. That might all change when the car is in motion, being steered by an unfeeling automaton that is literally impossible to distract (see "things are sometimes legal only because they aren't explicitly illegal," above). There'll be like a 40% chance you're going to see someone's taint every time you drive to Piggly Wiggly.
Also, think of all the additional effects this could have on things previously unrelated to driving. Tinder will add a carpooling tab. The airline industry will suffer (it's still way difficult to have sex in a plane, and way cheaper to have your robot butler drive you home for the holidays). The DOT traffic camera websites will become subscription based. And the traffic report would suddenly become the most popular local news segment in history, because there is zero chance people wouldn't fuck their way through a gridlock on the 405.
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