Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I for one welcome our robot car overlords

As you’re probably aware, Google has been
Look Ma, no hands!
developing technology for driverless cars. Indeed, they’ve already tested these things for hundreds of thousands of miles without mishap. While normal car technology has slowly improved over time, the whole process is still insanely inefficient. Robot cars, however, could change all of that. With Google’s recent investment in Uber (the awesome app-based car hire service), they've provided some direction of where they’re taking this project. Felix Salmon describes the potential of the driverless car:
Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.
What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.
While cars have made incremental progress over the years, the whole process is still incredibly inefficient. The driverless cars can potentially change so many things for the better. Some of the potential benefits:

1. Significantly safer than even the best human driver, as computers don’t get distracted. More than 90 people die every day on the roads and more than 1.2 million are seriously injured each year. Why don’t we talk about this more? Imagine if 90 people a day were dying at the hands of terrorists.

2. Because of the potential for platooning, there would be much less traffic. Some estimate that the capacity of roads could double. This would be enormously beneficial in terms of both time and energy efficiency.

3. A drastically more efficient use of space in cities (and thus more convenience and less energy use) because there will be much less need for parking. As mentioned above, there are currently three spots for every car, which is making us fatter, poorer, and less productive.

4. Don’t have to deal with the hassle of maintaining a vehicle. No fueling every week or two, or worrying about maintenance, repairs, registering, and insuring the things.

5. Enhanced mobility for kids, the blind, the disabled, the drunk, and the elderly (which frees up time for those who’ve been playing taxi).

6. Cheaper houses, as they won't have to come with garages. This will save money in terms of construction costs, but more in that one will need to buy less land per house.

Finally, Morgan Stanley provides this chart as to when this utopia may arrive, and it's surprisingly soon!

What, if anything would be the downside here? More from the Economist here, the New Yorker here, and NY Times here. Felix Salmon here and Matt Yglesias here address why driverless cars may actually hasten the transition to electric vehicles.

Note: the original version of this post stated that Google had purchased Uber outright, which is incorrect. Turns out they only purchased part of the company via a ~$250 million investment.


  1. *Technically*, Google just invests in Uber. I wouldn't be shocked to see them turn their investment into ownership in the near future, but after the blowback from the Nest purchase, I think Google might take it slow.

  2. An interesting panel discussion on self driving cars and their levels of autonomy:

  3. Also, many of the factors limiting electric vehicle adoption aren't as relevant with self-driving cars.

  4. Yeah, it'll be interesting to see how Google does or doesn't integrate electric vehicles into their strategy. This article argues that the car renting shift associated with robot cars would naturally lead to electric cars being more feasible, since one wouldn't have to worry about range for those once-in-a-while long trips.