4 effects of self-driving systems – the most disruptive tech in history

  • Tax and traffic revenue: a ripple effect
  • Drivers and deliveries: job losses are inevitable
  • Hotels and airlines
  • Safety: can we save nearly 40,000 lives?

Driverless cars are coming – faster than you might think. Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving division, logged more than 1.6 million autonomous kilometres on California’s roads between 2015 and 2016. Just a few years ago, you could be forgiven for writing off autonomous vehicles as a tech fad or an indulgence of the hyper rich. But now, you need to recon with the reality of driverless cars.

And as Thomas Frey, a noted futurist, insists, “Driverless vehicles will be the most disruptive technology in all history. There may be more disruptive technologies on the horizon, but it is hard to imagine anything that will add more changes to our daily lives faster than this one.” His argument is that this tech will affect more people faster than any previous development in human history. We’re inclined to agree, and we’d like to look at some of the changes we can expect.

Tax and traffic revenue: a ripple effect

Frey’s vision of the effects of the driverless revolution is quite clear. But for many local governments, our poor driving is a source of incredible revenue. Frey notes that as much as 30 per cent of the total revenue of local budgets can come from traffic fines and related costs. In fact, according to him, “In 2015, New York City collected a record $1.9 billion in fees and fines for motor vehicle violations.” And Joel Barbier, the director of Cisco’s Digitization Office, writes for CNBC that “Washington, D.C. issued an average of 773 tickets per day [in 2014] from cameras used to identify speeding cars — adding up to roughly $37.5 million worth of fines.” Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly create budget shortfalls, demand re-allocation of police resources, and reduce the jobs available at Departments of Motor Vehicles, police departments, and other related occupations. And it’s worth considering what these lower revenues will mean for basic city services, too.

A woman approaches the self-driving Cody vehicle on the street
Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly create budget shortfalls, demand re-allocation of police resources, and reduce the jobs available at Departments of Motor Vehicles, police departments, and other related occupations.

Drivers and deliveries: job losses are inevitable

In the US, roughly 2 per cent of the total workforce – about 3.1 million people – are employed driving commercial trucks. As driverless freight takes each step closer to adoption, Anita Balakrishnan, a finance reporter for CNBC, sees little hope for these hard-working folks. “When autonomous vehicle saturation peaks”, she writes, “US drivers could see job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year.” Those are decimating numbers, and it’s hard not to see these professional drivers as casualties of automation. And there’ll be huge cost-savings for the shipping companies as they eliminate salaries and benefits. Barbier reports that McKinsey estimates put the numbers “between $100 to $500 billion per year by 2025 from driverless vehicles in the US trucking industry”. That may be good news for the economy as a whole, but leaves little hope for those struggling to find new jobs.

Hotels and airlines

The hospitality industry has already taken a hit from the sharing economy’s competition through sites like Airbnb. As experts like Jeff Weinstein, the editor of Hotels, explains, high-end hotels are doing just fine, and in emerging middle-class markets, consumers are strengthening the hospitality industry as well. But the future may not be entirely rosy. Sven Schuwirth, the vice president of brand strategy and digital business at Audi, says that the car manufacturer expects that, in the coming era of autonomous cars, business people “will sleep and work in their cars en route instead of checking into city-centre hotels”.

This only makes sense. Designers realise that the incredible safety of driverless cars means that they can pay a lot more attention to comfort than safety features. And because they need to reimagine the car as something other than a driver’s cockpit, they can become more like a mobile living room, office, or bedroom. If you’re already comfortable, why stop at a hotel?
Airtravel and the airports that make it possible are also in for a rude awakening. Frey reminds his readers that your regional hub probably takes in a large portion of its revenue just from parking. In fact, he reports, “In 2013, 41 per cent of airport revenue came from parking and ground transportation”. That’s set to disappear. But even regional flights may be in danger when you can summon a driverless car, relax in comfort on the road, and arrive fresh and ready.

Safety; can we save nearly 40,000 lives?

Not every effect of the self-driving revolution is a bad thing, however. As we’ve mentioned, Waymo’s been doing more driving than you or I can do in a lifetime. To date, they’ve put in 74 years worth of driving for you and me, given that the average American logs about 21,700 kilometres a year. And as Jacquelyn Miller, a spokeswoman for Waymo’s parent company, Google, announced after an incident in which a human driver struck their test vehicle, its cars have had “13 minor fender-benders in more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving — and still, not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident”. Human beings just can’t maintain a safety record like that – full stop.

In 2016, the most recent year for which we could find data, 37,461 people died as a result of traffic accidents in the US. And while that’s a dramatic improvement from the 1970s when nearly double that number lost their lives, it’s simply unacceptable for even a single person to be killed by bad driving. People are still worried about ceding control to a machine, but the simple fact of the matter is that they don’t drink and drive, get angry, text, spill coffee on themselves, speed, or any of the hundreds of things we’ve all done that risk a crash. Even if they’re only twice as safe as human drivers, that’s nearly 20,000 lives saved a year in the US alone!

Advances in self-driving technology are fast and furious, and it’s no longer possible to discount this disruptive change. Instead, we should begin thinking and talking about what’s to come, looking for answers to some difficult questions.

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