The Unintended Consequences of Driverless Cars

This is some interesting food for thoughts about driverless cars, currently being developed and tested by Google:

Google has been working on driverless cars for a few years now. The obvious selling point is that the cars will be much safer without a human behind the wheel.

Currently, a car spends 96% of its time idle. Compare that with planes which spend almost their entire lifetime in operation/airborne. Idle planes aren’t making money, and they need to recoup their hefty $120M price tag. There is an unforgiving economic incentive to make sure it is always in use.

The proliferation of driverless cars will have a similar effect. Cars will spend less time idle: why would a household buy 2 (or even 3) cars, when they only need 1? Ride to work, then send the car home to your spouse. Need to go grocery shopping, but your kid also needs a ride to a soccer game? No problem, a driverless car can handle that.

What will begin as households cutting back to a single car, will expand. Why would a family need an entire car to themselves? That’s crazy! It may start as extended family in the same area sharing cars, then neighbors sharing cars, and then entire apartment/condo complexes in cities offering driverless cars bundled into their HOA/rent.[2]

The operating percent of a car will go from 4% to that 96%. But back to my leading statement: there are unintended consequences. Parked cars will be a relic from the past. What happens to car insurance prices if a driver is no longer part of the equation? And if cars are receiving 20 times more actual use, that would imply that there would be 20 times less cars sold.[1] This is the kind of disruptive change that can reshape the automotive industry. The recent GM/Chrysler bailout may have been for naught.[3]

[1] Of course, this isn’t exactly the case, as the cars would need to be replaced more often due to nonstop usage, but the point stands.
[2] Hell, I’d share a car with my condo complex. I currently don’t own a car, I walk or take taxis basically everywhere.
[3] Of course, car companies realize this. And I can guarantee you, they will lobby against driverless cars.

The brief post is written by . For some reason, I hadn’t even considered that driverless cars would operate without someone in them, but as Dutta explains, it would make sense for families to own fewer cars.

Readings: Diller’s Creative Process, Google Cars, Africa’s Soccer Impostors

Some interesting articles I’ve read recently:

1) “Picturing Failure, Sketching Dreams” [Wall Street Journal] – an excellent profile of Elizabeth Diller and her creative process. She’s the architect behind The High Line in New York City. This passage about the creative process resonates with me strongly:

Ms. Diller said her creative breakthroughs usually come when she isn’t working. She might be watching a play by the experimental Wooster Group, or seeking out work by late French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, known for his irreverent use of everyday objects. They might come while she’s reading—from an academic journal to People magazine. (Mr. Scofidio [Elizabeth Diller's husband] sticks mostly to novels; the frequent traveler sometimes rips out each page of a paperback after he finishes it to lighten his load.)

Read the entire piece here, and please also check out my photo essay on The High Line.

(2) “Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic” [New York Times] – very interesting development from Google. This is fascinating:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

So is Google competing with DARPA’s Urban Challenge?

(3) “Africa’s Soccer Impostors” [Slate] – this is a sad, incredible story about a team that pretended to be Togo’s national soccer team while playing a game in Bahrain in September 2010. How did it happen?

After what must have been a grueling piece of detective work, the investigators pinned their suspicions on Tchanile Bana, a former national-team coach who had recently been suspended for taking another fake team to a tournament in Egypt.

The story is even more insane than most people would expect… In January 2010, Togo’s real national team traveled by bus into Angola’s Cabinda province, the site of its first match in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, and this is what happened:

As the Togo team’s bus crossed into Cabinda, armed soldiers from a separatist sect opened fire, killing the driver and two staff members and wounding several players. The team’s French manager, Herbert Velud, was shot in the arm. For around half an hour, the rebels fired on the bus with machine guns and fought with the team’s Angolan security force while the players crawled under the seats.

So unfortunate and bizarre. Are there any national soccer teams that have had worse luck and misfortune? I should mention that the article is written by Brian Phillips, who authored a post that I claimed is an absolute must-read.