What Impacts Will Autonomous Driving Have On Our Lives?
Livable Cities & Resilient Infrastructure

What Impacts Will Autonomous Driving Have On Our Lives?

The world of mobility is overflowing with speculative conceptualizations of the ways we’ll transport people and goods in our technological future. They’re often magnetic and visually seductive — but what are the societal implications of that kind of future?

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Firstly, Frank Chen, Head of Research, Deal, and Investing at a16z takes us through an eight-part video series unfolding the different layers of the Autonomy Ecosystem — from public infrastructure, energy and finance to shopping and justice systems.

Meanwhile, Benedict Evans gives the most comprehensive account we’ve found of the second-and third-order consequences of autonomy and electrification, writing that “moving to electric means much more than replacing the gas tank with a battery, and moving to autonomy means much more than ending accidents.”

Evans’ speculations about the effects of electrification range from the obvious increases in energy demand, to the long-term consequences for convenience retail. “Since gas is sold at very low margins, these retailers make their actual money as convenience stores, so what happens to the products that are sold there? Snacks, sodas and tobacco sell meaningful proportions of their total volume as impulse purchases attached to gasoline. Some of that volume might just go away.”

As autonomous cars circle the city perpetually, the total need for parking spaces will significantly reduce, increasing road capacity just as it increases the number of vehicles on the road at any one moment.

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Autonomy might increase or decrease congestion; Evans writes that “the impact of autonomy on traffic and congestion is more complex than just making driving itself more efficient. Though automatic driving should increase capacity, we have known for a long time that increased capacity induces more demand — more capacity means more traffic.” As autonomous cars circle the city perpetually, the total need for parking spaces will reduce, increasing road capacity just as it increases the number of vehicles on the road at any one moment.

Reaching further beyond the borders of what we understand as ‘mobility’, Evans writes that he “thinks autonomous cars will create more billionaires in real estate and retail than in tech or manufacturing — just as cars did. Big-box retail is based on an arbitrage of land costs, transport costs, and people’s willingness to drive and park — how does autonomy change that? Where are you willing to live if ‘access to public transport’ is ‘anywhere’ and there are no traffic jams on your commute?”

In a more playful articulation of our future mobilities, the New York Times published two speculative essay series describing certain cultural implications of the technology, The Rev-up: Imagining a 20% Self-Driving World, and Full Tilt: When 100% of Cars Are Autonomous. Throughout a series of short fiction and thought-pieces, the authors ask questions such as, “What happens to roadkill or traffic tickets when our vehicles are in control?” We recommend ‘Non-Stop Teenage Party’ wherein Geoff Manaugh references a 1970s essay that likens a traffic jam to a collection of rooms, which are “instantly formed and constantly changing communities”.

And finally, in PC News, Doug Newcombe asks whether self-driving cars could be put to service helping the underprivileged, and through his own channels Paris Marx highlights the darker sides of both autonomy and electrification.

As Benjamin H. Bratton, the philosopher and Programme Director of the Strelka Institute, writes, “If our technologies have advanced beyond our ability to conceptualize their implications, such gaps can be perilous.” If that’s the case, we need to lean more heavily on the imaginative, world-building design practices to make sure that the future we’re headed towards is something that we fully understand — and actually want.

Smart city and e-mobility

What are your visions for an autonomous future? How do we get there, and what will need to change for the world to adapt to it?

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