The self-driving reset of just about everything in our cities

Self-driving cars are going to be a huge transformational disruption, and they're probably going to happen faster than most people expect.

Starting in cities, starting with car-sharing, the economics and safety implications are too big to avoid:

  • Few traffic jams–cars will have a slower top speed, but rarely stop
  • No traffic lights–cars talk to each other
  • Dramatically less pollution
  • Pedestrians are far safer, bicycling becomes fun again
  • No parking issues–the car drives away and comes back when you need it
  • Lower costs and more access for more people more often
  • Instant and efficient carpooling, since the car knows who's going where

Most of the physical world around us is organized around traditional cars. Not just roads, but the priority they get, the roadside malls, fast food restaurants, the fact that in many cities, more space is devoted to parking lots than just about anything else. It's pervasive and accepted, so much that we notice with amazement the rare places that aren't built around them.

Understand, for example, that the suburb exists because of the car, as does the big amusement park and the motel. All of them were built by people who saw the changes private mobility would cause.

The self-driving car benefits from Moore's Law, which explains that computers get dramatically cheaper over time, and Metcalfe's Law, which describes the increasing power of networks as they get bigger and more connected. Both of these laws are now at work on one of the biggest expenses and most powerful forces in our world: transportation.

Like all innovations, the death of the non-autonomous vehicle is not all upside. The car industry gets mostly commodified, jobs are shifted and distruptions occur. Privacy for teenagers, ordinary citizens and bank-robbers-making-an-escape disappears. The suburbs become even less attractive to some people. But just as you can't imagine a city scene where just about everyone isn't looking at their smart phone and swarming in the virtual cloud, it's going to be a whole new cityscape once cars retreat from their spot at the top of the attention/command chain.

One way this might happen: Certain models will be labeled as Uber-compatible (or whatever network is in place). Buy that car and with a few clicks, the car starts earning its keep. When you're at work or asleep or otherwise engaged, it moonlights and drives other folks around. The combination of security cameras in your car and rider registration pretty much guarantees that your car isn't going to come back wrecked. It's not hard to imagine organizations building fleets to profit from this (a medallion replacement) but it also becomes economically irresistible to the individual as well.

This is a bigger shift than the smart phone, and it might happen nearly as fast.

Near my house, there's a parkway that was built so that owners of private cars would have a place to go where they could drive them without endangering everyone else. I wonder how long before that's what it will be used for again.