January 18, 2015
Automated Vehicles And Changes In Lifestyles

What will automated cars and trucks do to change society? First some uncontroversial changes:

  • A big reduction in jobs driving taxis.
  • A big reduction in jobs driving local delivery and long haul trucks.
  • A big reduction in car accidents and deaths from car accidents.
  • Greater mobility for the blind and other disabled.
  • Greater fuel efficiency as cars drive themselves more optimally.
  • Higher potential traffic volume on a freeway as cars do coordinated speed control and lane changes.

But what about the impacts on personal decisions on whether to live in cities, suburbs, or rural environments? That one seems a lot harder to call.

The argument for more suburban and rural living: commuting from suburb to city will become faster (faster average freeway speeds) and easier. Also commuting between suburbs (which is also quite common) will become easier as well. Why live in a city to reduce commuting time and commuting stress when you can use the commuting type to catch up on email, do video conferencing, and write documents? All else equal if commuting becomes easier people will commute longer distances.

The argument for more city living: autonomous cars will make mobility within a city cheaper, faster, and safer. Autonomous cars will reduce the need for car ownership. In a future permutation of Uber or Lyft you will be able to summon a rental autonomous vehicle, walk out your apartment, and find it waiting for you by the time you reach the street. Car ownership will become much less common and yet mobility will increase within the city. You won't need to park your car when you reach your destination because it will drive itself off to pick up another customer - just like taxis now but cheaper and with much faster service. So the high costs and hassles of car ownership will be replaced with a much more responsive transportation system within cities. Though the increase in people moving around might make traffic worse.

In both suburbs and cities I expect to see big commuter buses to be replaced by shared riding in smaller vehicles. Buses have to run less often because they are so big. Therefore people have to wait for them rather than immediately go where they want to go. An autonomous SUV going down a busy suburban or city surface road will get a signal from a central dispatching computer to pick up people who walk out from side streets and carry them in a direction that other riders in the vehicle are already going.

Ask yourself: Given autonomous vehicles would you change your mind about where you want to live? What sort of housing would you move from and to?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 January 18 09:40 AM 

ZZY said at January 18, 2015 11:36 AM:

While I look forward to the prospect of not having to own a car, I think the social change required to get to the point where there's no pressure to own your own car will be a ways coming. It's inevitable that the taxi companies will try to charge the same taxi rates now as they do for human-driven vehicles. At first the driverless taxis will be a luxury item that might even cost more than a standard taxi. I like to hope the transition to the world you envision will take less than the 20+ years I expect, but with government interference I wouldn't count on it.

osborne said at January 19, 2015 6:37 PM:

I think rather than not having a car, nearly everyone will have one but not for the expected reason. Having an autonomous vehicle makes LIVING in your vehicle much more attractive. That will be the growing trend among baby boomers who cant afford or couldn't bother to keep their homes. Having your autonomous car as your primary residence would be an attractive alternative for several reasons:

1) Quick overnights to fun places. Say your in Indiana. Go to sleep in your car and wake up the next morning in New Orleans for Marti Gras. The car drops you off near downtown and picks you up and drives you to a secluded place to sleep off the celebration. Maybe you chase the Sun and have the car drive you to Florida. Maybe you have it synch with weather data to follow the sun because you hate clouds and rain. Maybe you program it to do a tour of National Parks, or famous Battle Sites or the best reviewed restaurants and bars in the country. Doesnt matter, the car drives so let it take you to places that interest you or excite you. Follow your wonderlust. Beats sitting home in front of the computer.

2) See family more frequently. If other family members are "Easy Riders" too, just coordinate to meet in cool places. Maybe meet at Yosemite for a family reunion.

3) No property taxes. Set driving algorithims to avoid paying tolls to save cash.

4) Sensors that detect if something bad is happening outside. So if your car is parked while you sleep and there is a fire outside, just have it drive to safety.

5) Gyms and or Taverns will convert to be quick places to grab a shower, relax and grab a meal. Beats having your own kitchen.

dscott said at January 20, 2015 6:58 AM:

The ultimate mobile society? Tiny Houses on Wheels. The Greenies would go nuts at that prospect, so would the politicians with no captive voting block to ensure their continuity of power. Imagine if you will a mobile work force that leaves at the first news of better wages elsewhere or employment. I foresee employer parking lots with utility hook ups for water, sewer and power. No commuting necessary except for trips to the grocery store or other shopping. But then why go to the grocery store if the store delivers to you ala Amazon Market Place or Giant's Peapod?

Imagine the entire paradigm of power shifted from one of politicians enticing people with more social benefits to better work opportunities.

Why is this possible? Because it becomes practical to do so. Economics drives every decision of the masses.

Gregory said at January 20, 2015 8:56 AM:

When automatic cars become widespread, quite a few things will change in suburbia (some of them apply to the city):
- No more need for a garage - so that space will be converted into living space;
- No more need for a driveway;
- Traffic on highways will become way thinner as automated taxis will carry several people instead of 1.3 as the case is today. Thus, on multi-lane highways some of the lanes could be re-purposed or kept spare for repairs. That will reduce road maintenance costs;
- These automated taxis will be purely electric because they will have the flexibility to recharge between trips without hassle for the driver/owner;
- The passenger capacity of different taxi models will be much more varied; some of them may have minibus-like size;
- The pricing of the trip will naturally be dependent upon whether you want to travel alone or not, but generally it will be way cheaper than today's car trip;
- Children will be able to visit their friends without bothering their parents - it's a very welcome change!
- No more wasteful trips like taking a friend to the airport or taking children to school or afterschool activities;
- Passengers will have the option of sleeping during the intercity trips on sleeper cars, thus less demand for air travel.

Some occupations will certainly suffer as a result. No more employment at gas stations; no more automotive repair jobs; no more traffic cops; no more parking
attendants or parking enforcement... I don't think school bus drivers will survive it either.

Nick G said at January 20, 2015 9:01 AM:

Why would anyone ever pay for parking, if they had an autonomous vehicle? Just tell the vehicle to go find free parking. If free parking is too far away, float on the street. Vehicles are likely to be electric, so floating at low speed would cost almost nothing.

That would eliminate parking garages and meters, but put many, many more vehicles on the road. Would automated driving compensate for the congestion? Would elimination of all that parking space compensate?

David A. Young said at January 20, 2015 8:55 PM:

I can't see many people wanting to live in their cars, but I could see the same mindset resulting in a huge increase in RV-like vehicle sales, which would bring the cost for those vehicles down considerably, thus reinforcing the trend. Especially if being electrically powered were practical.

Brett Bellmore said at January 21, 2015 2:14 AM:

I recall an SF story decades ago, one side point was that the houses were largely self-sufficient and mobile, much as you suggest. Clifford D. Simak's "The Werewolf Principle". It might have had similar implications.

aandrews said at January 21, 2015 7:23 AM:

A lot of this fantasizing seems to be predicated on dirt-cheap fuel.

Russ in TX said at January 21, 2015 8:15 AM:

To answer the poll itself: no changes. I live in the suburbs for a variety of reasons, and traffic isn't much on that radar. A yard and the ability to plant whatever I want is, however.
The effect on me would be that I'd be teaching myself not to get carsick, and spending a lot more time reading and drinking coffee in the car. Also, catnapping, because why not?

Jack Tallent said at January 21, 2015 1:19 PM:

I read a really interesting article maybe 10 years ago about the impacts of autonomous delivery vehicles. One of the more interesting ramifications was that the cost and time for delivering things could become very small. If the cost and time becomes small enough, then enormous lifestyle changes could occur. The number of items that you permanently posses could be reduced dramatically. Your home could be transiently populated by delivered items on an as-needed basis. Your living room could disappear when you don't use it. Possibly things that we own outright now would only be rented in the future.

Pettifogger said at January 21, 2015 1:21 PM:

Among other impediments, municipal transit authorities as well as taxi companies will fight competition. Taxi company regulation is usually on the local level, but transit authorities, in Texas at least, have a state-statute-granted monopoly. They will not graciously relinquish it.

TTT said at January 21, 2015 1:24 PM:

The best part is that a portion of traffic will move to off-times, like the middle of the night.

Rush hour gridlock is a function of traffic being too concentrated within certain windows of time. The same roads are empty from 11PM-4AM.

Roads don't need to be widened (very expensive, and often impossible due to lack of land). Self-driving cars spreading just a bit of traffic to other times of the week (product delivery, road-trips, etc.) will ease most of the problem.

zimmer said at January 21, 2015 1:27 PM:

Not for me, but for others:

No more drunk drivers, no more DUI arrests. Less caution / restraint while partying, more semi-public intoxication. Either greater acceptance of this, leading to overall coarsening of society, or a backlash against this, leading to higher levels of prudery.

JBClaypool said at January 21, 2015 1:34 PM:

Some devil's advocate thoughts: computer virus; NSA/FBI surveillance state--immediate capture; kidnapping; divert into oncoming traffic...etc.

Achillea said at January 21, 2015 1:43 PM:

"A lot of this fantasizing seems to be predicated on dirt-cheap fuel."

And vehicles that never need maintenance or break down.

Some exciting new possibilities in the area of insurance fraud, too.

TScott said at January 21, 2015 2:21 PM:

I suggest that self-driving delivery trucks are yet a ways off. Here's why. In a large LTL system (Con-Way or FedEx Freight, for example) you've got trucks that go terminal-to-terminal (maybe L. A. to San Francisco) and trucks that do local pickup and delivery. The dock apes (loaders) know what's coming in on each TtoT trailer and have orders concerning which items from which trailer go on which local delivery trailer. In a perfect world every incoming trailer would arrive on time with all merchandise intact, thus permitting every outgoing local trailer to be loaded FILO (first in, last out). This means that the first stop for the delivery guy is the load on the very tail and, ideally, the first stop is the one closest to the terminal while the last stop is the one furthest from the terminal. This would allow for best fuel economy, etc. Sadly, what actually happens is that some trailers are delayed by fog or rain or an accident, thus destroying your proposed loading schedule for local deliveries. So you re-jigger the trailer's load. And then, just as the delivery truck is leaving the yard, there's the last-minute call from a recipient to say that he can't be there at the scheduled time, could you please (pretty please) bump it back by an hour? Thanks so much. So now the poor driver has to skip delivery X and, for the next several loads after that, has to shift delivery X around in the trailer so he or she can get at the load(s) behind delivery X. Sometimes there's no room and delivery X has to be taken off the truck so the delivery behind it can be off-loaded and then delivery X must be re-loaded before the driver can proceed. Which makes the driver late to all subsequent deliveries. Which makes each Receiving Clerk the driver has to deal with upset, and Receiving Clerks are not shy about expressing their unhappiness. And the driver is not supposed to be snarly in return because The Customer Is Always Right. So unless you've got some Loader Droids for the delivery trucks (which won't happen until all shipments have standardized loading pallets) you're probably stuck with the current system.

Tirno said at January 21, 2015 2:26 PM:

Try this on for size: Sending your children to school will now mean just putting them into their single person autonomous car, pre-programmed to take them to their school. Picking them up means them being put into their autonomous car by a school official and then directly home. School districts? They'll be gone. When changing school means you no longer have to move house or engage in hours of commuter traffic, changing schools will be what happens on a regular basis. (Follow reasoning from here: when failing schools have no autonomous cars showing up at their front doors and are closed, what use are public teacher unions? For that matter, what use are school districts?)

Law enforcement and crime would change. When the city population generally doesn't use cars, perpetrators will be getting away from their crimes on foot. Manually driven cars will stand out like a sore thumb, and attempting to use an autonomous car for a get-away would result in all the cars that start their trip in the immediate area being diverted to a police service station for a quick check, assuming that the occupants aren't checked out remotely using the interior camera.

On the other hand... entirely new criminal activities will be created: counterfeit credentials for paying for use; disabling autonomous cars and chop-shopping them; hacking destinations to bring the prey to the predator; EMPing heavy traffic to tie up police resources or as a 'protest'; realistic mannikins loaded with explosives using the automatic guidance infrastructure as a smart-bomb guidance system.

James said at January 21, 2015 3:29 PM:

I've semi-recently moved from Iowa to Pittsburgh, and I am flabbergasted by all the streets that have a lane used up by parked cars. (Here the buildings are crammed sufficiently closely that there is rarely space between them for a driveway much less a garage.) Autonomous cars would free up all that space.

Stephen Kosman said at January 21, 2015 4:12 PM:

Many here are associating "autonomous cars" with "community-shared cars". Just because a car might drive itself in the future, doesn't mean individuals won't want to purchase one out of convenience of availability, status, and personal expression. So while we could see highways becoming less congested through more efficiently flowing traffic, I'm doubting the need for parking lots, driveways, garages, or on-street parking will subside. Society's transition from horse-and-buggy to automobile, ultimately yielded more people owning personal transportation... not less. Automated cars will allow even more people (those physical impairment, etc) to own and use personal automobiles than before.

Historically, whether people tend buy or rent (anything) depends on larger, more broad economic conditions... not just technical innovation. To determine the viability of community-shared cars in the future, one needs look no further than current and future usage trends of taxis, Uber, Car2Go, etc.

Conservadad said at January 21, 2015 4:36 PM:

So who is going to be the 1st one to put their child in one of these contraptions and send them to school/dance lessons/swim practice/grandma's house? Mine are now in their 30's and doing quite well but my suspicion is that today's over-involved, hyper-protective helicopter parents ain't gonna buy in...hell they get all torn up if a kid eats a little dirt or encounters a bully on the playground saying something mean or does anything that is remotely seen as unsafe. Its really fun to speculate about what could be, but the probability of this is way low. Anyone in insurance out there, want to try getting a quote on an unmanned vehicle that is going to take humans, or even merely cargo, around town?

Cicero418 said at January 21, 2015 5:36 PM:

I think I would take more trips. Part of the hassle in going to the beach or visiting my folks is the drive, its between 4-5 hours for either. Not a big problem but those long stretches on the highway can get tiring. And if I want to visit other familiy then its 8+ hours. Yes I could take a plane but that has its own problems. However with a self-driving car I could take that longer trip without having to worry I'd get too tired towards the end and have an accident.

Yes, within a decade the very design of cars may change, you would see a lot more "mini-RVs", esp. if you don't have onerous laws requiring at least one passenger being a "driver behind the wheel". And what would it mean to be a driver either? Would there still be the need to have a driver's license? That change may not come for an entire generation, or longer.

Krisjhn said at January 21, 2015 6:11 PM:

I think the prediction that autonomous cars will reduce the number of cars on the road is similar to the prediction that computers would lead to a paperless office. Instead of saving paper offices use more paper than ever. Anytime you make something easier for people they want more of it, not less.

Autonomous cars will lead to more cars on the road. Not less. Basically, you are opening up driving to a host of people that for age, health, or other reason discouraged or denied drivers licenses. Additionally taxi and delivery companies will shift the money the save on not having to hire drivers to expanding their fleet. This will allow them to serve their customers better and faster.

If you thought highways were clogged now, just wait.

On a personal level, I'll get more reading done during my commute.

Gregory said at January 21, 2015 6:32 PM:

Krisjhn, I don't think you are right. Transportation services is not something that people would consume much more if it becomes more available. After all, traveling in a car is not much fun. Yes, certain categories of people who didn't travel before will now travel - but what share of population are we talking about? 20%? 30%? Hardly more. On the other hand, the efficiency of road use can increase by factor of 2 or 3 at the very least.
Now, as to office paper use: http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-paperless-office-headed-that-way-at.html has some interesting charts. Paper use is on the decline for the last 15 years, and that trend accelerated recently.

wren said at January 21, 2015 7:03 PM:

With the advent of haptic virtual reality and AI, why not have the interior of your 'car' house become a virtual 5 bedroom house or better yet, fill it with utility fog. Something I've long thought about, carry around your own tent sphere filled with fog, then pop open somewhere creating what you need. Except food, APM for that. I hadn't married this idea to autonomous vehicles 'til now - it would be fun. The ultimate mobile home.

Larry said at January 22, 2015 10:17 AM:

Cars will get much cheaper as they remove(!) the safety and mechanical systems. They won't be needed once the driver variable is gone. Much more efficient too, because they will weigh so much less. Airbags, gone. Crash protection system, gone. Steering and braking systems, gone.

okuin123 said at January 22, 2015 6:50 PM:

On the highways cars will be equipped with sensing equipment and programming to allow very, very close spacing at high speeds. This mode will only be available in either the fast lane or the diamond lane; as the cars get much closer to each other, the near total elimination of wind drag will seriously boost fuel efficiency in every car except the lead. Assuming the cars can link to one another via datalink, the benefiting drivers can send a tip to the driver of the lead car, to share the savings (something like Paypal for cars). This will mitigate the cost of fuel without the need for improved engine technology, although by then engines should have improved anyway. The result: fast/diamond lanes on the freeways will see long trains of cars moving very quickly and saving gas.

Naturally the closely spaced mode will be disabled in conditions of low visibility, high traffic volume or whenever an accident is reported ahead of the train. Any car within the train will be removed if its datalink fails.

okuin123 said at January 22, 2015 7:02 PM:

Old people who wouldn't be able to drive themselves will become mobile. The quality of their lives will improve hugely: they'll be able to shop for themselves, see their doctors and visit friends and family more often with less help. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and kiddie birthday parties will become more accessible to Grandma and Grandpa. Old folk's homes will decrease in number.

Since access to social activities is a good predictor for longevity, old people will live longer also.

MPH said at January 22, 2015 10:35 PM:

There's a lot of good ideas in the comments about the positives of autonomous cars. But autonomous cars will be a long time coming to the USA, due to the liability issues. For example, the Porsche 928 had ABS available on it everywhere but the USA when it came out in 1977. The first car in the USA with ABS available was the 1986 Corvette. Chevy was the first one willing to risk the liability issue. Any new technology on cars/trucks quickly gets blamed for accidents involving that car. Just how is the manufacturer of an autonomous car going to claim that the accident involving their car was due to an error on the part of its driver? You can bet the proverbial agricultural endeavor that even in the case of an automated car being hit by an at-fault human driven car, there will be a lawsuit in which the claim will be made that the automation system was at fault by virtue of failing to avoid the collision (imagine, an autonomous car is in traffic, stopped for a light, with cars in front of and to either side, when someone rear ends it; someone WILL be in that situation and will sue the manufacturer and the morons on the jury will agree that the manufacturer should have to pay).

bordo said at January 23, 2015 2:35 PM:

More jobs for porters who will carry your stuff to the autonomous vehicle

bordo said at January 23, 2015 2:37 PM:

(temporarily) more jobs for people coordinating fleets of autonomous vehicles that need to be all over the place.
Until we get really good voice recognition (that can perfectly understand a variety of different accents) as well as act as an automatic scheduling agent.

Randall Parker said at January 24, 2015 8:37 PM:


It hadn't occurred to me before that autonomous vehicles will slash the revenue local and state governments make from tickets. Wow, that'll change things.

I expect a very large fraction of the population will continue to own vehicles because they'll want to travel on demand. Also, parents taking their kids to/from school and daycare while commuting to/from work need a whole lot of flexibility and often quite precise timing.


An added fee for anyone who can't accept a delivery at the appointed time would decrease the frequency of the problem you describe. Or two fee levels when paying to ship it in the first place: At the lower price you must accept delivery when the truck shows up. At the higher price you get to play games with delivery time.

Home delivery from local stores by a delivery service can offer multiple terms of delivery and different prices.


More trips: I agree. Someone will be able to drag themselves out to their car at 5 AM, let it start driving, and then fall asleep to wake up a few hours later, eat, and then wait a couple more hours to reach some destination. Or fall asleep in the car at midnight while the car starts out on a 7 hour journey. This will really cut into demand for flights. It will also boost the number of miles driven.

I think we will use cars less for shopping because most stuff will get delivered. But we'll use them more for leisure and business trips.


In the 80s and 90s computers helped automate paper production. But now the demand for an assortment of printed materials is on the decline. Therefore International Paper is closing plants. That trend will continue.


Liability will be measured by the price of insurance. If the big car insurance companies start seeing lower payouts with autonomous vehicles then their market will grow. It might start in other countries due to liability concerns. But once German and Japanese car insurance companies start seeing savings from AVs the American insurers will be clamoring to insure them in the US and will lobby hard to make them legal here.

Doug said at January 25, 2015 12:54 PM:

As far as trucking and public transportation, unforeseen problems will limit utilization. With trucking it may be theft, which could be more of a problem than it currently is. With public transportation, (i.e, buses) it will be poor maintenance and breakdowns, dirtiness and use by people you do not wish to be close to; vulnerability to crime will be greater; all in all, this will be something for those with no other means and plenty of time.

As to reliability, mechanical systems fail unexpectedly, and at seventy mph, I do not wish to be either in or near on the road to a suddenly unguided missile. I have seen in real life a heavily-loaded tractor-tanker trailer (dry concrete) with failed brakes fail to take a turn on an expressway, cross a median, hit several cars, leave the roadway (narrowly missing me by a foot or so in my little econocar), and drive through a house (what an apalling sound), coming to a stop at the fence in the backyard. At least it had a human to honk the horn, and other humans like me responded desperately to get out of the way as best we could. I do not wish to dwell on the thought of the truck with no brakes or driver, and me cocooned in a little automated personal transportation "pod".

Pedaldown said at January 27, 2015 10:47 AM:

"It hadn't occurred to me before that autonomous vehicles will slash the revenue local and state governments make from tickets. Wow, that'll change things."

Perhaps if you had noticed in the last discussion on this subject it might have.

Pedaldown said at October 22, 2014 9:45 AM:

Unmentioned & a major deterrent to the universal implementation of self driving cars will be the resistance from local governments & insurance companies to the total elimination of a major income stream...traffic fines.

Ally said at January 28, 2015 8:56 PM:

I have only read half the responses, but DOES NO ONE ENJOY DRIVING HERE?!?! I own a car because I LIKE driving, what a concept! I enjoy long distance trips, I love darting around the big city, I enjoy the fun and peace of it all, I like blasting my music and having a massage from my subwoofer while I am actively aware of my surroundings and maneuvering though them. I like being in control and engaged and I will NEVER give my car up so long as I still have one and I won't be arrested for driving my own car. I'm not even a BMW or Audi owner, I own a lame Versa. I don't see a huge chunk of the population getting rid of their self-driving cars any time remotely soon.

Engineer-Poet said at January 31, 2015 3:27 AM:

I do enjoy driving some kinds of roads, when I'm fully awake and have a car with a tight suspension and steering.  Crossing distance on highways of any kind, long straight stretches of pavement, isn't fun in itself but leads to interesting states of mind where I come up with things I wouldn't in my usual habits.

I absolutely hate driving in stop-and-go traffic, especially when I'm tired and just need to be somewhere.

Charlie said at February 1, 2015 4:56 AM:

Ask yourself: Given autonomous vehicles would you change your mind about where you want to live? What sort of housing would you move from and to?
A yurt in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Randall Parker said at February 2, 2015 9:46 PM:

Ally, It depends on where you drive. Millions of people sit in stop-and-go traffic, try to maneuver onto a busy street, can't get thru a green light because cross traffic is stopped in the middle of the road, and otherwise have a lousy experience trying to get to and from work every day.

Dr. Franklyn said at February 16, 2015 7:00 AM:

Well automated vehicles are much needed. Specially to avoid road accidents or at least to minimize number of road accidents that is caused for human.

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