By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Google’s driverless car, which is safer than human drivers. I want one. I don’t care for driving, and I tend toward attention-drift and tunnel vision. I have a distressing ability to simply not see a car coming down the road when I’m preparing to make a turn; I look, carefully, but sometimes they just don’t register in my cognitive visual system. Besides, driving limits my ability to do anything but drive. I can’t stare raptly at the scenery, or at least ought not do so. I can’t read. I can’t talk on the phone (well, apparently everyone can talk on the phone; it’s the simultaneous driving they can’t do).
Now Adrian Wooldridge has some thoughts on how driverless cars might affect the economy.
[C]ars that are driverless may not need steering wheels, pedals and other manual controls; and, being virtually crashless … their bodies could be made much lighter. So makers would be able to turn out new models quicker and at lower cost.
I think Wooldridge misses the point there. We could produce cars using less steel, making that resource more available for other productive purposes.
Cabbies, lorry drivers and all others whose job is to steer a vehicle will have to find other work. The taxi and car-rental businesses might merge into one automated pick-up and drop-off service: GM has already shown a prototype of a two-seater, battery-powered pod that would scuttle about town, with passengers summoning it by smartphone. Supermarkets, department stores and shopping centres might provide these free, to attract customers. Driverless cars will be programmed to obey the law, which means, sadly, the demise of the traffic cop and the parking warden. And since automated cars will reduce the need for parking spaces in town, that will mean less revenue for local authorities and car-park operators.
So we might have an end to the cab cartels. Traffic cops and parking enforcers are surely only a necessary cost, one we’d be better off if we could dispose of. And parking garages are not only the ugliest buildings one usually sees in a major city, they’re one of the least productive uses of expensive urban land.
When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopaedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too.
There’ll still be risks, so there will surely be continued insurance, even if it’s more along the lines of homeowners insurance, but it will surely be considerably cheaper. And as valuable as doctors are, the need for emergency room services and hospitalization is a net drain on the economy. I remember having laproscopic abdominal surgery, the first person in my town to have that surgery instead of the “saber slash” (as the surgeon described it), which reduced my recovery time from 6 weeks to a literal handful of days. What an economic savings, and how much more if we can avoid the tens of thousands of hospitalizations annually from auto accidents.
When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise.
Ugh, I don’t like that one. But unless these cars are electric and we shift to greater reliance on nuclear power, fuel costs may offset that. And I’m not sure I’d move further from work just because I didn’t have to do the driving. Being in a car, even if I can read, play video games, or whatever, is still less pleasant than doing those things in my living room or on my front porch, so where do I really want to be able to spend that extra half hour or so?
When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce.
On one day last week I made six separate trips to tote my kids around. Take daughter three to school. Pick daughter two up from school. Take daughter one a Jimmy John’s sandwich before her swim meet. Pick daughter three up from school. Take daughter three to swim practice. Pick daughter three up from swim practice. Thank god my wife took daughters one and two to school and picked daughter one up after the swim meet. Can anyone doubt I would have been both less frustrated and more productive that day if I had a driverless car?
The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived.
Who can put a price on the salvation of the most prized aspect of English culture?
And the best thing about driverless cars is that network effects aren’t an issue. There don’t need to be lots of them before you can get all the benefits of them. In fact in terms of safety the greatest benefits accrue to the first mover, who is made much safer around all those human drivers, whereas the last mover–the lone human driver in a sea of driverless cars–gains comparatively little safety benefit from switching.
I’ve sworn I’ll never buy a new car again. I could see making an exception for a driverless car, because I wouldn’t just be buying transportation, I’d be buying time. Not that I won’t be price sensitive–it’s not worth everything to me, and I’ve never been an early adopter for technology–but I’d stretch a lot further for a driverless car than I would for any normal car.