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For quite a while now I’ve been thinking about the effects of driverless cars. To begin with I didn’t realise that this was what I was thinking about. When I was a student I looked at how to use car parks as schools and farms once they no longer housed cars, but that’d getting off track – we haven’t got to that point yet.

I’m going to lay out one way that I think driverless cars could change the world. Each point could ramify significantly and I could chase each one, but let me take this one path and try to make it compelling. Then we can go back over it if it makes sense.

Thinking about today’s human-driven cars- it’s all about the driver! It was the Queen’s birthday long weekend, so to pass the time we watched all the fast and furious films1 and the driver really is key. The car seems to be the star, but as the cowboy kid drags the supercar around the carpark you see that ‘precision driving’ really is a property of the driver. This car-driver relationship has been important ever since ‘normal’ people could have cars. The freedom and adventure afforded by having a car and being able to drive it has been a big deal in 20th and 21st century culture.

Captain Scarlet sat facing backwards in his car, most cars are able to do 60-0 a lot faster than 0-60!

The first thing that will change when cars aren’t for the driver will be the car itself. It’s always easiest to think about the technological impacts of a technological change. The cockpit design is currently driver focused; they are usually the one paying for the car (Lady Penelope and chums excepted). If the car is being driven by a computer then there is no need for many of the features that we’ve become accustomed to. No need for all passengers to face forwards, no steering column, no hand brake or gear stick. Once you take away all of these things you have a small train carriage. In fact you are more or less back to horse drawn carriage design constraints but with a lot more technology to solve them with.

Prediction 1: Within a few generations of driverless cars (5 years for argument’s sake), cars will look very different to the way that cars look now.

Once you take away the ‘thrill’ of driving from people, and cars get from a to b in a rational way, I think people will lose interest in owning a car. Even now the cost difference between owning a car and getting a taxi everywhere isn’t a knockdown argument for ownership. There are currently fairly strong disincentives to cabs: they are a faff to hail in most places, you need to have money on you, most taxi drivers (in Sydney at least) drive like lunatics so there’s the whiplash problem. Once you take away the disincentives to thinking about your transportation as a service then private vehicle ownership become less desirable. You already see this in cities like London and New York where the congestion and cost of parking makes driving yourself suck enough that the balance tips toward public transport. I’m not going to rant about how great public transport is; for everything that’s good about it there are a whole load of things that are terrible. It’s a pretty sub-optimal urban mobility method, just less so than people driving their own cars.

Prediction 2: Car ownership rates will plummet as driverless cars become more available.

Once there are a few people doing ‘transport as a service’ (as the IT world would probably call it) it will become pretty standard. You’ll sign up to a service level agreement and payment plan – exactly the same way as you would for a mobile phone bill. If you pay $x a month then you’ll get a pickup guaranteed within 15 minutes that costs $y a km and is cleaned every 2 days; let’s call this the Focus service. For a bit more you get the Alfa service, and a bit more than that you get the Aston service, where you are picked up within 5 minutes, in a car that’s just been cleaned and has unlimited travel built into the price.

Prediction 3: Schemes like zipcar will expand to offer cars that will come and pick you up and drop you off.

Owning your own car will seem odd and antiquated. If people don’t own cars, then they could be off doing useful stuff while you aren’t using that particular one. That means that there’s no need to park them. No need for two whole lanes of road to be taken up with parked cars (twice as much road in most places) and no need for car parks (freeing up lots of urban space). This will make the roads less congested (more on this in a second) and free up lots of real estate. Chicago is about to launch a scheme where they make the parking prices on their streets vary by demand so that there is always one empty spot on each block. Their numbers suggest that something like ⅓ – ½ of all the traffic on the streets is caused by people cruising for a spot. They hope to solve that by making parking more available, but if driverless cars get there first then they will triply relieve the congestion problem – no parking, no cruising and holding up others, and driving much better so there is none of the human error associated with “all the other retards” in their cars.

Prediction 4 & 5: Congestion will dramatically reduce, even with a much higher population and without any new infrastructure.

Real estate prices will dip as a huge amount of space is released onto the market. As most of it isn’t really that usable to begin with there will be some interesting uses for it.

I think that this is what I was thinking about when I did this poster: mushroom farming in the city. I’m sure we could come up with a bunch of other things that you could do with the low quality space in car parks now, but the one thing that I think that developers are waking up to is that underground car parks don’t really have any long term value as they can’t be converted into anything else once we aren’t parking cars!

Prediction 6: City real estate prices will dip a little as new area is unlocked. It will be buffered by the majority of parking m2 being pretty shitty space. In semi urban and suburban areas we might even see a collapse in prices as area that is currently used for cars only becomes available for development all at once.

One effect that is pretty obvious from prediction 3 is that the taxi industry will collapse. This, from a user’s perspective isn’t too bad- it’s being replaced by another service that does the same thing but better. The people who this will suck for are taxi drivers. I’m not sure how many drivers there are, NSW taxis claims “6 500 taxis on the roads in NSW” so there would be maybe twice that many drivers. Adding 10k unemployed people to the pool would probably be a bit destabilising. In cities like Melbourne and Sydney where most drivers seem to be young migrants this might play out differently to cabbies in London who’ve made this their whole career. This won’t be the standard, gradual creative destruction, so if anyone can think of an example where a whole industry has disappeared this quickly it’d be interesting to compare it. (Maybe coal mining or ship building in Britain?) There will be a similar effect in trucking and other driving jobs.

Prediction 7: The collapse of professional driving for transportation will be a significant global destabilising force.

Current road rules are designed to deal with the slow reaction times and poor decision making capacity of human drivers. Driving on a particular side of the road, in zoned-off lanes, and following the signs (traffic lights, road markings, etc.) means that fewer cars will fit onto the roads or that they will be forced to drive in an inefficient way. A mixed environment of drivers and driverless will need to deal with the lowest common denominator – the wet-ware

Prediction 8: If driverless cars are to achieve anything like their full p-driven cars will be need to be banned. This will probably extend to all other non-AI road users too, so if you want to cycle Copenhagen style bike lanes will probably be required.

Assuming that there is some version of  Isaac Asimov‘s Three Laws of Robotics built into the driving system, cars will go to great lengths to prevent harm to humans2. This means that a ‘playful’ individual could cause transport chaos just by walking out into the road.

Prediction 9: jaywalking3 will become a more serious offence.


  1. the most recent F&F movie is fantastic, V Dizzle’s flying headbutt is part of a string of highlights!
  2. I suppose this brings up some interesting trolley problem type issues
  3. you should listen to this fascinating 99% invisible podcast about jaywalking
  • Ben

    Looking for some images for this post I found this link to futuristspeaker where Thomas Frey
    has already covered a lot of the issues I bring up here. It’s more general, and a pretty quick read.

  • williamycai

    Where do you get all these amazing ideas from Ben…

    but about your point no.2 that car ownership will plummet. Like you said its like a phone bill, but every mobile contract lets you keep your phone. There is something about personalisation that can not be replaced. It is nice to be able to leave your coat in your car, knowing that coat will only be worn when you are outside, and more importantly it is that ownership security. Even today there are payment plans for those who can not purchase a car outright. Is this in a way renting (personal ownership)? This is excluding the people that require to put stuff in their car for their job. (like tradies)

    The Focus and Aston plans. Nobody likes to wait, even for one min. That’s why these loading times are so important in games / turning on a computer. So during that transitional phase it is a hard decision between rent the driverless Focus for $50 month (where you have to wait 15min everytime) vs buying a the $3000 old second hand Focus where it is there where you left it. There is a bus stop to the city right outside my apartment in Camperdown. It comes every 10 minutes but I still rather take the frustration of driving to the city and battling to find a carpark spot. It infuriates me EVERY time then I start blaming my wife for making me go to the city, but it seems I still have not learnt.

    And finally because now that there is ALL THIS SPACE, doesnt that fuel the idea of having a car again? If I know all these cars are driverless, and I know that there will always be easy parking in the city, I would be so happy to drive to the city myself. Also I could drive like a a-hole and all these driverless cars would have to serve for me. Wouldn’t that be fun.

    Automatic transmission has been created for so long now, but there is still the option of buying manual. Do you use the autoplay features on your computer every time you insert your usb Ben?

    p.s are you teaching in spring 2013? My last semester at Uni, would have loved to seen you ran your studio one more time with non-lazy students and see the real fruit of your studio. I’ll admit even I was lazy compared to the other 2 studios I did. But that’s because you were so chillax!

    • Ben

      Hi William, That’s a lot of points, so I’ll hit them one at a time:
      The ideas just come from taking an idea, any idea, and then keeping going with the implication of that idea well past where you think is a good place to stop. It’s like a game really, you don’t need to think about whether it will happen, just if it could happen.
      So, onto the meat. I agree that the culture of ownership will make people eager to maintain ownership of the vehicle. I would imagine that, initially at least, driverless cars would be for fairly well off people. This would mean that they could afford to be the kind of people who park in a well-serviced, valet-parking place whenever they go to town. So they are accustomed to the idea of requesting their car rather than trudging into the depths of the garage to get it. A driverless car will be similar, except you can request your car from your phone, and have it meet you at the front of the building rather than needing to go to the concierge. Batman uses this to great effect in Batman Returns, getting the Batmobile to come and get him when he’s in a bit of a fix. What this means is that people won’t need to care where the car is when they aren’t using it, just that it will be ready for them when they need it. It could be parked somewhere inconvenient, or even just cruising around the block.
      BUT what this does mean is that whenever you aren’t in the car, you are paying for it, where as on a service contract, you can spread the cost amongst others. Rich people already do it with their private jets, and it’s becoming the norm with access to computer-power; you can think of this as transport virtualisation.
      The point isn’t that nobody will own a car, but that not owning a car will be so attractive that eventually very few people will do it.

    • Ben

      I should probably hit these comments all as one block, there’s so much overlap in the answers!
      This guy talks about why he rides a bike, and it is because he’s lazy, parking etc. is too much of a pain. The pain for you of getting a bus is probably because you are mentally geared up to drive, plus the fact that the bus feels slow because you’ve ceded control to the driver, and it probably doesn’t take you to exactly where you want to go.
      If you switch for a second and think that you have the Aston plan, and it takes 10 minutes for a pickup (this is probably very slow, but it’s a worst case). then all you need to do is press the pickup button on the app, put your coat on, and walk out of the building – by the time you’ve done that, the car will be there waiting for you. Then when you’ve got to where you want to go, you just get out.

    • Ben

      The idea that you can drive however you want plays directly into the predictions about pedestrian freedom of movement, and banning self driven cars. This is a classic free rider problem. Sure it would be great if you were the only one on the road, but everyone else would think that and soon you are just another jerk on a road clogged with all the other jerks. So in comes the government to protect me from jerks like you!
      From a teaching perspective, no idea! (p.s. aren’t you supposed to be self motivated as a post grad?)

  • Ben

    in response to a comment of mine (on his comment) on the Economist’s website, Andrzej Wyszyński wrote:(

    “looking out of the windows if they didn’t need to?”

    I guess that depends on the purpose/mood/activity of the occupants. If you are putting the finishing touches on your PowerPoint or watching a movie probably not, but if you are sightseeing then definitely yes.
    Now I would like to comment on some of the points you raise in the link above. While I agree with you that within urban environments, people will come to rely more on non-owned vehicles and less on their own cars or mass transit systems (at least as currently constituted). However the elimination of private car ownership is just not in the cards. People simply love their cars too much and with their far greater utility will love them even more and will not give them up at least not willingly.
    There will still be many benefits to car ownership. For instance, I really can’t see the commuter giving up his car. I know by now we were all suppose to be telecommuting but that hasn’t happened. In the future the car will become an extension of the commuter’s workplace. People will be able to reclaim all their lost commute times and turn this into productive work time. Human productivity will increase markedly. Your workday would not start when you got to your job but when you first entered your car.

    For vacationers doing a cross-country road trip, doing it by “taxi” is no where near as convenient or pleasurable as in your own personal dream car, a car which many of us can easily afford.

    For city-dwellers with vacation homes in remote areas car ownership is mandatory. I speak from experience on this one. I tried renting a car one summer while waiting for the new car and it was more expensive and not as practical as car ownership.

    Many of us have fond memories of romantic encounters within our parent’s cars with our teenage sweethearts. Somehow using a “taxi” would not be as personal or likely to impress our love interest and attending a drive-in theatre would be out of the question.

    For me the killer app of the driverless car is going to sleep in your personal car and waking up in any town of your choosing within a 1000 mile radius. In the context of the USA that would mean many in the NE would be able to afford to routinely escape winter’s frigid grip with weekend trips to Florida.

    One aspect of future car ownership that many overlook is your car as a power source. With the eventual coming to market of metal-air batteries and especially lithium-air which has an energy-density nearly equivalent to that of gasoline, many will be able to use their car as a power source/energy repository. You will be able to power your off-grid weekend getaway home with your car battery.

    As for congestion it will not only be greatly reduced, it will be eliminated. I think Thomas Frey may be a tad optimistic when he claims a 10 to 20-fold increase in road capacity with the advent of lane, distance, and time compression (he actually misses one and that is demand-based dynamic allocation of lane direction). In any event any remaining congestion will be replaced by demand pricing.
    “Jaywalking will become a more serious offence.”
    To combat jaywalking and to facilitate the traffic-light free intersection, pedestrian overpasses will need to be considered. Another possibility would be to have driverless people movers, akin to SegWays, positioned at busy intersections to quickly whisk pedestrians across roadways.

    One last thought on the driverless car impact and that is car reliability. As mechanical breakdown replaces driver error as the leading cause of automobile accidents, car manufacturers will increasingly come under pressure and respond by making our vehicles far more reliable.

  • Ben

    Nice piece from wired on the ethics of driverless cars.

  • Ben
  • Ben
  • Ben

    I’m going to keep posting links here. This one is about a test town for driverless cars

  • Ben