The flip side of autonomy

Thinking about the people factor

Google. Volvo. Mercedes. Tesla. Uber. Everyone with wheels...

The idea of the autonomous car is barreling into our collective consciousness, as inevitable as death and taxes, as benign as a cold glass of mountain spring water.

Soon, they say, we'll be able to snooze or read the paper during our morning commute. Our cars will go park themselves and return at our command. Congested roads will flow once again. Accidents will be a thing of the past. Routes will be optimized, fuel consumption reduced, and the Earth a greener place.

But if we dig a little deeper, we find a hundred little implications. Things we didn't originally envision. Side effects. Misgivings. Oddities. Let's explore...

When cars become autonomous ...

People who can't ride backwards will be seen as prima donnas.
Parents will wonder how young is too young to let their child ride by themselves ... perhaps while strapped into the baby seat?
Knucklehead teenagers will get hurt trying to cross from one car window to the other while on the highway.
Rather than being more enjoyable, your commute will feel even worse due to abject boredom as you ponder your lousy job.
Driving your own car will be sexy and rebellious, like riding a motorcycle, driving stick, or writing HTML by hand.
The number one (no pun intended) requested feature will be an in-car restroom. Number two? Nap-optimized seats.
Slowing to check out a nice house or a beautiful person will require three taps, a swipe, and a manual override, and the moment will be missed.
Windshield wipers, rear-view mirrors, and eventually steering wheels will be optional extras.
At first, you'll always get into the driver's seat, but eventually you'll just get into whichever door is closest.
There will be epic battles over the music, because "driver's choice" won't work any more.

Intersections won't have stop lights, and will be terrifying high speed crisscrosses to the uninitiated as they blaze through at full speed.
We'll be annoyed when our cars have to comply with antiquated stop signs, stop lights, and lane markers for the non-autonomous cars.
Putting an entire city into gridlock will require little more than semi-organized wandering in the streets, started with but a tweet.
They'll drive down the exact center of the lane, eventually creating two strips of left-behind rubber like the kiddie race cars at Disney.
Cars will all go at the same gentle but efficient speed. But there'll be a 'hurry up' button, too. Which will be abused.
Streets will become clogged with human-less cars ferrying forgotten lunches, 2-page legal documents, and shared puppies.
Database race conditions will lead to gridlock on the lightest of traffic days.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic will mean your commute is going swimmingly at somewhere between 64.99 and 65.01 mph.

It'll be possible to optimize for a comfortable ride or a bat-out-of-hell stomach-churning fastest possible (but still technically 'safe') ride.
Some cars will have an optional 'clear my head' route which takes you through tree-lined paths and to beautiful sunset overlooks - but it'll cost extra.
You'll rarely spill your coffee because cars will build a global, real-time map of potholes and speed bumps.
Quaint neighborhoods and side streets will become thoroughfares, as algorithms optimize for speed and fuel economy, not aesthetics.

It'll be harder for cops to figure out who is the bad guy, because nobody will be driving erratically.
People will forget how to drive, and then when it snows heavily the autonomous systems will give up and people will have absolutely no idea what they are doing.
Sassy teens will write their own firmware to make their cars always drive in reverse, just for the LOLs.
People from developed countries won't be able to get around by themselves when they travel the world.

Our workdays will expand to incorporate our commute time, rather than commuting becoming relaxation time.
Every once in a while you'll see an empty car barreling down a desolate highway to rescue a spurned lover and bring them back home.
Driver's licenses will no longer be the de-facto ID in the US, and carrying a non-driving ID will feel 1984ish at first.
Kids will be able to play baseball on the streets again.
Under the right circumstances, it'll make more sense to send something to Chicago via your (otherwise) empty car than via FedEx.
We won't give our cars names any more because they will just be a shared resource.

They'll have their own driving records. Certain brands will cost more to insure due to software bugs.

Prestige cars will allow others from the same 'marque' to merge — owners will be buying into an ease-of-traffic-flow club.
Less-expensive cars will require their passengers (the horror!) to manually put the snow chains on.

The latest software push will cause thousands of accidents in just minutes.
They'll have tiny little motors and draft each other on the highway for efficiency, a long metallic pea pod of humanity.

Parking lots will become human-less, densely-packed, self-organized bumper-to-bumper grids of cars awaiting their masters (or their side jobs as driverless ubers).
The primary reason for using a GPS will no longer be driving, but for walking directions.
It will be exceedingly frustrating when cars break down sufficiently that they can't drive themselves to the shop for repairs.

Interested in more thoughts on autonomous vehicles? Check these out:
Bob Lutz: Kiss the good times goodbye - 'Everyone will have 5 years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap' (see also this related Twitter thread)
A fun writeup on on autonomous cars
People hacking the roads to confuse autonomous cars on BLDGBLOG
Rodney Brooks' excellent article on unexpected consequences of self-driving cars
A roadmap for a world without drivers on Medium by Alex Rubalcava
These two bits about the ethics of autonomous cars
A long one about the privacy implications of all of the data being recorded by autonomous vehicles
A gorgeously-researched article on second-order consequences of electric and autonomous vehicles on why the transition to self-driving cars is fraught with problems

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