The year is 2033. It’s an unseasonably hot fall afternoon, at least that’s what the plane’s computer announced before including an exact temperature of 32 degrees Celsius. Just a few degrees hotter than New York, but you’re too nervous to care. Your nails begin to bite into your seat handles.
Your Porter plane was starting its descent into Toronto’s Island Airport, but ever since they replaced human pilots with full, point-to-point autopilot, you haven’t felt altogether easy during the landing part of these monthly business flights.
The plane touches down smoothly and without incident, as always. You pick up your luggage at the airport’s baggage claim area, hop on and off the automated Porter ferry to cross Lake Ontario, and then step off at Porter’s Bathurst street terminal on Toronto proper. While you make your way to the exit, your AI assistant has already ordered a car to pick you up via Google’s rideshare app.
Your smartwatch vibrates just two minutes after you reach the outside passenger pickup area. That's when you spot it: a royal blue Ford Lincoln driving itself down the terminal driveway. It stops in front of where you’re standing, welcomes you by name, then unlocks the backseat passenger door. Once inside, the car begins driving north toward Lake Shore Boulevard on the predetermined route negotiated between it and your rideshare app.
Of course, you totally splurged. During this latest recession, business trips are one of the few remaining opportunities where corporate allows you expense for the more expensive car model with extra leg and baggage room. You also opt against the cheaper carpooling option, officially for safety reasons, unofficially because you hate driving in cars with strangers. You even opted for an ad-free ride.
The drive to your Bay Street office would only take about twelve minutes, based on the Google map on the headrest display in front of you. You sit back, relax, and point your eyes out the window, staring at all the driverless cars and trucks traveling around you.
It really wasn’t all that long ago, you remember. These things only became legal across Canada the year you graduated—2026. At first, there were only a few on the road; they were just too expensive for the average person. A few years later, the Uber-Apple partnership eventually saw Uber replacing most of its drivers with Apple-built, electric, autonomous cars. Google partnered with GM to start its own carsharing service. The remaining carmakers followed suit, flooding major cities with autonomous taxis.
The competition got so fierce, and the cost of travel dropped so low, that owning a car in most cities and towns no longer made sense unless you were rich, you wanted to take an old-fashioned road trip, or you just really loved driving manual. None of those options really applied to your generation. That said, everyone welcomed the end of the designated driver.
The car pulls up along the busy intersection of Bay and Wellington, in the heart of the financial district. Your ride app automatically charges your corporate account the second you exit the car. Based on the emails flooding your phone, it looks like it’s going to be a long day at the bitcoin exchange. On the bright side, if you stay past 7 p.m., corporate will cover your ride home, custom splurgy options included, of course.
Why self-driving cars matter
Most of the key players in the field of autonomous vehicles (AVs) predict the first AVs will be commercially available by 2020, will become commonplace by 2030, and will replace most standard vehicles by 2040-2045.
This future isn’t that far off, but questions remain: Will these AVs be more expensive than normal cars? Yes. Will they be illegal to operate in large regions of your country when they debut? Yes. Will a lot of people be afraid of sharing the road with these vehicles initially? Yes. Will they perform the same function as an experienced driver? Yes.
So aside from the cool tech factor, why are self-driving cars getting so much hype? The most direct way to answer this to list out the tested benefits of self-driving cars, the ones that are most relevant to the average driver:
First, they will save lives. Each year, six million car wrecks are registered in the US, on average, resulting in over 30,000 deaths. Multiply that number across the world, especially in developing countries where driver training and road policing aren’t as strict. In fact, a 2013 estimate reported 1.4 million deaths occurred worldwide due to car accidents.
In most of these cases, human error was to blame: individuals were stressed, bored, sleepy, distracted, drunk, etc. Robots, meanwhile, won’t suffer from these issues; they are always alert, always sober, have perfect 360 vision, and know the rules of the road perfectly. In fact, Google has already tested these cars over 100,000 miles with only 11 accidents—all due to human drivers, no less.
Next, if you’ve ever rear-ended someone, you’ll know how slow human reaction time can be. That’s why responsible drivers keep a fair amount of distance between themselves and the car ahead of them while driving. The problem is that the extra amount of responsible space contributes to the excessive amount of road congestion (traffic) we experience day-to-day. Self-driving cars will be able to communicate with each other on the road and collaborate to drive closer to one another, minus the possibility of fender benders. Not only will this fit more cars on the road and improve average travel times, but it will also improve your car’s aerodynamics, thereby saving on gas.
Speaking of gasoline, the average human isn’t that great at using theirs efficiently. We speed when we don’t need to. We plow the brakes a little too hard when we don’t need to. We do this so often that we don’t even register it in our minds. But it does register, both in our increased trips to the gas station and to the car mechanic. Robots will be able to better regulate our gas and brakes to offer a smoother ride, cut gas consumption by 15 percent, and reduce the stress and wear on car parts—and our environment.
Finally, while some of you may enjoy the pastime of driving your car for a sunny weekend road trip, only the worst of humanity enjoys their hour-long commute to work. Imagine a day where instead of having to keep your eyes on the road, you can cruise to work while reading a book, listening to music, checking emails, browsing the Internet, talking with loved ones, etc.
The average American spends about 200 hours a year (about 45 minutes a day) driving their car. If you assume your time is worth even half of the minimum wage, say five dollars, then that can amount to $325 billion in lost, unproductive time across the US (assuming a ~325 million US population 2015). Multiply that time savings across the world and we could see trillions of dollars freed for more productive ends.
Of course, as with all things, there are negatives to self-driving cars. What happens when your car’s computer crashes? Won’t making driving easier encourage people to drive more, thereby increasing traffic and pollution? Could your car be hacked to steal your personal information or maybe even remotely kidnap you while on the road? Likewise, could these cars be used by terrorists to remotely deliver a bomb to a target location?
These questions are hypothetical and their incidence would be rare rather than the norm. With enough research, many of these risks can be engineered out of AVs through robust software and technical safeguards. That said, one of the biggest roadblocks to the adoption of these autonomous vehicles will be their cost.
How much will one of these self-driving cars cost me?
The cost of self-driving cars will depend on the tech that goes into their final design. Luckily, a lot of the tech these cars will use is already becoming standard in most new cars, such as: lane drift prevention, self parking, adaptive cruise control, safety braking, blind spot warning alerts, and soon vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, which transmits safety info between cars to warn drivers of imminent crashes. Self-driving cars will build upon these modern safety features to minimize their costs.
Yet on a less optimistic note, the tech predicted to be packaged inside self-driving cars includes a large assortment of sensors (infrared, radar, lidar, ultrasonic, laser and optical) to see through any driving condition (rain, snow, tornados, hellfire, etc.), a robust wifi and GPS system, new mechanical controls to drive the vehicle, and a mini-supercomputer in the trunk to manage all of the data these cars will have to crunch while driving.
If this all sounds expensive, that’s because it is. Even with technology getting cheaper year-over-year, all this tech could represent an initial price premium of between $20-50,000 per car (eventually dropping to around $3,000 as manufacturing efficiencies scale up). So this begs the question, aside from spoiled trust fund brats, who’s actually going to buy these self-driving cars? The surprising and revolutionary answer to this question is covered in the second part of our Future of Transportation series.
P.S. electric cars
Quick side note: Aside from AVs, electric cars (EVs) will be the second biggest trend transforming the transportation industry. Their impact will be huge, especially when combined with AV tech, and we definitely recommend learning about EVs to gain a fuller understanding of this series. However, due to the impact EVs will have on the energy market, we decided to talk about EVs in our Future of Energy series instead.