Ruminations on Self-Driving Cars – Take Two


Earlier this year I posted some Ruminations on Self-Driving Cars. Last week, 60 Minutes broadcast a piece about self-driving cars, and the challenges automakers are facing. They focused on what the cars will be able to do, and how many deaths will be prevented.

Tesla just announced that this coming Thursday, October 15, 2015, they will release the much-anticipated software upgrade version 7.0 for the Model S. This upgrade has many self-driving features, and Model S owners will now be able to drive hands free on highways.

I actually believe that once self-driving cars become commonplace, they will have a much more profound impact on our lives than just relieving us from the daily chore of driving or reducing traffic accidents and fatalities. They will fundamentally change the way we live, the way our cities look, and the way we structure our societies.

A similar change took place about 100 years ago when conventional automobiles took over the horse and buggy world. In New York City alone around 1900, we estimate that there were 170,000 horses at any time. The horses were worked in 12-hour shifts. Horses defecate every 2 hours and urinate every 3-4 hours. All this went onto the city streets. There were workers called “dirt carters” that picked up the manure from the streets and hauled it to specially designated “manure blocks.” Imagine the flies and vermin this attracted.

In the winter, the frozen waste was covered by layers of ice and snow, and the streets sometimes rose up by several feet, as this built up. Imagine the stench and mess when the spring thaw came around. When horses died, as all living things do eventually, they were often left on the streets until they were rotted sufficiently so they could be taken away in pieces. While they were there, children played with the carcasses.

Behind every house, there was a stable. When citizens wanted to travel, they had to get the horseman to prepare the team. Horses needed to be cared for and fed daily. Only the richest could afford horses – and therefore transportation.

This changed rapidly when cars come along.

The advent of self-driving cars will once again change the way we live and travel as fundamentally as the change from horses to cars did.

When we can summon our cars using a mobile app on our smart-phones, similar to how we can hail an Uber car right now, we really won’t need parking lots anymore at work places, airports, train stations, shopping malls or restaurants downtown. We will simply have our cars drop us off at the front door wherever we are going. Then the car will drive away to a parking garage that’s designed just for cars.

Cities will be clean. The streets will no longer be littered with parked cars on both sides. The only cars on city streets will be those that are on their way to drop off or pick up their passengers. They will park in peripheral facilities away from the human activity.

We hail our cars when we need them, and send them away when we don’t have use for them. That, of course, begs the question: Why would anyone still “own” a car? We really don’t spend enough time in our cars to warrant having them sit in our garages all the time, like the horses waited in the stables behind the houses of yesteryear.

Imagine requesting cars of varying luxury and grades. If we just want to go down the street to the mall for a couple of miles, we might get an entry-level car, just for transportation. It would be very cheap. However, if we are planning on a 45 minute drive downtown to the Opera, we might get a luxury model with leather couches, a bar and a high-end sound system. There would be no need to own either. We would just use them when we needed them.

Car ownership, car maintenance, use of energy, expedience of transportation, quality of the ride, quality of the air we breathe, cityscapes, inner-city ambiance and the structure and construction of office buildings, all will change rapidly because cars drive themselves.

We will watch old movies of 2015 and it will seem as quaint as westerns look to us now.

That’s how we will think about the days when we still had to drive our own cars.

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