Self-driving cars will revolutionize more than just driving

Self-driving cars will revolutionize more than just driving

We romanticize cars. When people think of America, they think of the loud muscle cars and heavy, quasi-military-grade SUVs populating our streets. Cars satisfy a lust for freedom. They become an extension of ourselves. We name them, care for them and show them off.

But when you wipe away the fantasies and nostalgia, I find that there is one common refrain that most of us sing: Driving is a chore. We curse traffic, complain about commutes, get into fistfights over parking spots and constantly ask for gas money. In addition, the maintenance on cars can add up over time: fuel costs, oil changes, tire rotations, new brake pads, body repairs and much more

Owning and driving a car is as much a hassle as it is a reward.

The adoption of autonomous vehicles may be the vanguard in the death of car ownership, freeing us from the hassles that come with mobility today. A recent report released by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that private car ownership may peak within the decade, replaced with cheaper alternatives such as networks of shared autonomous vehicles. Why endure the hassle of owning and maintaining a car when it is easier and cheaper to just buy a ride?

So what is the alternative? One possibility is a vast network of autonomous vehicles linked together in constant communication. You pull up an app and request a ride. A signal is sent to the nearest self-driving vehicle, which begins driving to your location. The vehicle then drops you off at your destination, and drives away to pick up another passenger. These vehicles will be in constant motion, dropping off and picking up passengers or charging and parking in a designated location. 

What about mass transit? The same could be done with self-driving buses or passenger vans: constant communication on routes and passenger capacity. No need for rest, minus recharging (which current buses already have to do).

Moreover, autonomous vehicles have the potential to drastically ease traffic congestion. The traffic congestion we know and love is simply the result of driver miscommunication. It is impossible for us as drivers to know how exactly the driver in front of us will speed up or slow down, when they will change lanes or when they will turn. Moreover, drivers routinely sit in the passing lane even when not overtaking other cars, forcing traffic to match their slower speed. 

With autonomous vehicles, the “drivers” (the software within the cars) will be able to communicate information in real-time: speed, turns, lane changes, etc. Collisions would decrease dramatically, as would traffic congestion. Public bus routes would become more accurate and quicker, as bus drivers would not have to deal with erratic drivers or traffic jams.

But my favorite aspect of this possible reality is the potential to cut down on parking in cities and towns. As much as we love driving, our cars spend most of the their time sitting in an asphalt parking lot. Because of this, upwards of 20 to 30 percent of urban areas are designated for parking. 

Acres of valuable land that could be used for housing, business growth or public parks are paved so that a two-ton vehicle can sit there for a few hours. In addition, most of these spots sit empty, as zoning codes require a certain number of parking spots based on land use. It baffles me that some cities have housing shortages, while our vehicles have a surplus of “housing accommodations.”

With autonomous vehicles being rarely parked and in constant motion, we could free up an enormous amount of space. Fewer and fewer parking lots – as well as narrower roads – could revolutionize that amount of space cities have to work with. More pedestrian space. More apartment space. More outdoor seating for restaurants. More public parks. 

Everything I have outlined thus far is still a utopian fantasy. There are many factors that still block such a wide-scale transformation. These autonomous vehicles, which have made enormous leaps in the past decade, still have difficulty reacting to humans in urban spaces. 

Moreover, such a transition to autonomous vehicles will be messy, as the first of these vehicles will have to deal with irrational and erratic human drivers. Lastly, there are other human factors involved. It may prove difficult to convince people to give up car ownership, let alone cede their sense of control to a software code.

Autonomous cars possess a transformative potential that could alter our daily lives in the coming decades, entailing transformations few of us have thought about. As such, there are risks and cautions to take with autonomous vehicles. But, are these risks any more severe than a two-ton vehicle barreling down the road with an 18-year-old texting behind the wheel?

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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