If you look back 15 years or so, before the smartphone went mainstream, it’s easy to see how a small difference—one small device—can have a monumental and lasting impact; in the smartphone’s case, it was spawning the always-on, social-media-fueled barrage of technology now plaguing pockets and purses everywhere. Looking around today, Tesla Motors is the most valuable carmaker in the world, and it’s not because it’s wildly profitable, or even profitable at all. It’s because investors are betting on the future, and they think the future will be electric and autonomous. They’re not alone.
MotorTrend’s Kim Reynolds wrote an article late last year detailing the promise and pitfalls of self-driving cars. In that article, he recounted a 2016 trip to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ford’s Research and Innovation Campus in Palo Alto, California, during which Ford’s then-CEO Mark Fields said, “The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago.”
Tesla was one of the first to take serious action on self-driving cars, although it took awhile for the industry to take the upstart company seriously. The public, on the other hand, took to the Roadster and Model S, and later to the Model 3 and Y, like kids take to iPhones. While Tesla appears to still have an edge over the competition, its decade-long head start seems to have been mostly squandered, the company continually moving the always-imminent arrival of full, “sleep in the car” Level 5 self-driving autonomy. Companies like Google parent Alphabet’s Waymo, as detailed in Reynolds’ article, and General Motors’ Super Cruise, have either caught up with or surpassed Tesla, depending who you ask, and other carmakers like Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and Volkswagen all have self-driving programs in the works, too.
But right now, the question of who will end up a winner in the self-driving car race isn’t about the companies that will bring it into being. It’s about the rest of us—those who’ll have to live with the results.
Self-Driving Cars Aren’t for Everyone
Famed novelist William Gibson probably wasn’t the first person in history to notice this phenomenon, but he was the one who put it in an inimitably succinct and clear form, back in the early 1990s: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Right now, some form of self-driving is available on a lot of cars—but only new cars, and even then, the best features are reserved for the most expensive models, with self-driving features often costing thousands of dollars on top of the price of an already expensive new car.
The high cost of entry to the self-driving world is what’s limiting the distribution at present. But as the technology matures and supporting sensor and computing technologies gain more widespread use in other industries, the infrastructure necessary to bring down costs for Level 1 and Level 2 self-driving (similar to Tesla’s current Autopilot implementation) is already coming online, promising to put the cost of such systems within the reach of more buyers.
But still, that word—buyers. New cars. If you want to be part of the autonomous revolution, you’d better have some money to spend, because this revolution isn’t free, and it’s not for everyone. That may be a good thing, however, as most Americans seem to be a little bit scared of self-driving cars, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.
There’s already a “digital divide” in America, a phrase that describes the disparate distribution of the future in the present: According to Pew, nearly one-third of American adults with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year don’t own a smartphone, and only a little more than half of them own a desktop or laptop computer. Contrast those figures with 97 percent smartphone ownership and 94 percent desktop or laptop ownership among households with $100,000 or more in annual income. As the technology we use to work, live, and move about in our daily lives becomes more and more expensive, that divide only gets broader. Self-driving (or semi-self-driving) cars are among the most expensive of consumer technologies.
Don’t think this is all just academic drivel; these concepts are alive in the general popular culture. The futuristic sci-fi Amazon Prime series Upload features the digital divide theme throughout its 10-episode first season, but it’s the season-opener that ought to strike a blow with car enthusiasts (spoiler alert): Just before the show’s protagonist dies in a self-driving car crash (an occurrence which everyone seems to think should be impossible), his fiancée puts his car in “Prioritize Occupant” mode—a setting that will protect the life of the car’s occupant over that of anyone outside. While the irony is unmissable, the real gem here is the fact that it’s presumed the hyper-wealthy will continue to accrue power and privilege to the point that they’ll literally be able to tell their computer-driven cars to run people over with the flick of a switch. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a sport.
Even if Everyone Had Self-Driving Cars, it Wouldn’t Solve Everything
It’s easy to get caught up in the fetishized vision we often seem to share of the future: A clean, sparkly place where sleekly clad people glide in and out of silent, pod-like cars that cruise the city like tireless cabbies crossed with faithful robot dogs. But while a few are living the preview of that life now, and more will in the near- and medium-term future, fully autonomous self-driving cars are much further away than most people think, at least for private ownership.
Before we get to personal, fully self-driving (Level 5) vehicles, we’ll have fleets of automated taxis, or trundling lines of self-driving shuttles on campuses and at sporting events, or you might even ride a self-driving bus from your company’s remote parking lot into work. But in doing so, we could see hundreds of thousands of those who drive for a living lose their jobs—and that’s before we look at the freight and delivery industry. (Do note the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast in the linked data highlighting a “much faster than average” 20 percent rate of growth for the taxi-driving, ride-hailing, and chauffeur fields through 2028—the BLS clearly doesn’t think self-driving cars will be hitting the streets in any significant form before the decade is out.)
Moreover, a big part of the problem with cars, and the enjoyment of cars, is not that real people drive them, it’s that they’re everywhere. Roads, highways, freeways, interstates, parking lots, parking garages, parking decks, driveways, home garages—everywhere. In the glibly titled “Crowdsourced Quantification and Visualization of Urban Mobility Space Inequality,” by Michael Szell, a mobility and sustainable transport researcher currently at ITU Copenhagen, published in the journal Urban Planning, the “spatial inefficiency” of cars is made clear: even in an extremely car-centric city like Los Angeles, considerably more space is allocated to car use than is actually used, as a percentage of the share of the mode of transport, when compared to other modes like rail or bicycle.
In Los Angeles’ case, 92 percent of its transportation land area is dedicated to vehicle use versus four percent each allocated to bicycle and rail use. In reality, only 78 percent of L.A. ‘s transit happens by car, with rail accounting for 11 percent, and bicycles just one percent. In other global cities, the misallocation of resources is even more extreme: Beijing’s vehicle share of the transportation space is 68 percent, while only 21 percent of its travel is done by car; conversely, rail and bicycles account for 58 percent of travel, but only 32 percent of the space dedicated to Beijing’s transport.
As a result, transportation in car-centric cities is less efficient—and traffic is worse—than it could be if we relinquished some of the car’s dominance in our city planning to make more space for rail, bicycle, and even pedestrian traffic.
Instead, our cities have been defined or redefined by the car in their layouts, their suburbs, and their traffic corridors. What the car made possible became the unwritten law of the land, and we’ve now sunk so much into the automotive infrastructure that we can’t see any alternative. By the way we’ve built and remodeled our cities, we’ve made driving a miserable experience, so we’re looking to hand the misery off to a machine.
For those lucky enough to be able to do so, life will surely improve—imagine all the free time!—but for the rest of us, as more space gets cordoned off for the use of self-driving cars, life may actually get worse, and not just because we have to watch the future happening all around us, forever just out of reach.