Meat Loaf’s classic song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” will soon seem downright prehistoric—a tune from back when people had to sneak sex in parked cars. In the age of autonomous vehicles, experts are worried that we’ll be having all kinds of sex in moving cars. Randy teens might order a driverless Uber SUV with tinted windows for a spin around town. An office worker could take full advantage of the long morning commute with the spouse—or with the neighbor’s spouse. We can only hope Daimler-AG anticipated this development when in 2014 it registered a trademark for a driverless auto service it calls—kid you not—Car2come. (Perhaps they should’ve had a native English speaker in the room at the time?)
Car culture is whooshing toward what tech legend Andy Grove of Intel would’ve called a “strategic inflection point.” The autonomous-car movement is accelerating faster than a Tesla in Ludicrous Easter Egg mode. In recent weeks, Jaguar Land Rover invested $25 million in Lyft so JLR can test its autonomous cars on Lyft’s ride-hailing service. Honda, which had lagged in driverless tech, unveiled ambitious plans to make cars by 2020 that can drive themselves on highways. U.K.-based auto parts maker Delphi and French transport company Transdev said they will jointly start testing “driverless, on-demand mobility” on roads in France.
Almost every automaker and dozens of well-funded startups are frantically racing toward a driverless future. Yet while we can see driverless cars coming, it’s hard to understand just how much they will change everyday life. We can imagine doing work or watching a movie when we’d otherwise be nudging through traffic and angrily yelling words we wouldn’t use in front of our mothers. Government officials are already starting to wrestle with big societal issues related to this issue. The National League of Cities just released a study that gets into concerns about privacy (who gets to know that you take daily trips to the booze store?), regulation, ownership of data, hacking and, of course, safety. And there’s still so much more to consider. Some research says that in 20 or 30 years, most people in urban settings will move around in driverless cars. At that point, the cascading impact of driverless transportation will be as great—and as nuanced—as the shift from horses to cars in the early 1900s.
For instance, most consumers will find car insurance less necessary than carbon paper. Flo from Progressive and the Geico gecko will be forced to get jobs as extras in Disney movies. Auto accidents will (supposedly) almost never happen. That will devastate the towing industry, which employs around 1.6 million people with an average salary of $41,000. Talk about a job killer.
In the horse era, there was a need to have stables everywhere. In the car era, we’ve needed gas stations everywhere—about 120,000 of them in the U.S. But in the driverless era, most cars will be electric and will automatically find a charging station once depleted, the way a Roomba returns to its dock after vacuuming up the cat hair. Gas stations will become something we tell our grandkids about.
Self-driving cars don’t need to park. They can drop you off and give someone else a ride. There are as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the U.S. and billions more worldwide. What if we don’t need parking lots anymore? Turn them into parks? Urban farmland? Maybe hipsters will make converted parking decks into the coolest places to live, like they did with old warehouses in downtrodden parts of cities.
Traffic lights could disappear. If you’ve used the traffic app Waze, you know that today’s technology can closely track where you are, your speed and hazards. Autonomous cars will have a vastly more advanced version of that, so every kind of traffic signal could be moved from hardware on the ground to software in the cloud, automatically telling each car where and when to stop, go, merge and all that. Visit a city in 50 years and there might not be a single traffic signal or yield sign.
Forecasters paint a picture of orderly autonomous cars obeying speed limits and keeping safe distances from other cars. But if humans demand choices, some companies might at least give us optional settings, allowing us to dial in modes that might range from “Cautious” for families with small children to “Hurry” for the Type A crowd to “Mad Max” for when you’re already 20 minutes late for your daughter’s wedding.
For that matter, what will a driverless car chase in the movies look like? Mark down another car culture obituary.
Autonomous cars will destroy the meme of the upscale suburban mom tirelessly chauffeuring kids to soccer, piano, pottery and tax evasion classes. Millions of parents will instead summon a car, shove the kids in, track them with an app and mix up a cosmo on the back patio. The backlash to helicopter parenting might just be autonomous-car-enabled couch parenting.
By the way, who’s going to clean the inside of a Lyft or Uber or other shared autonomous car? Will sensors know if a kid just barfed up his birthday cake on the back seat? (Or will the next passenger be left to figure that out?)
Such aspects of post-driving life are missing from most research. One new study from Intel and Strategy Analytics seems to bring up even crazier ideas. It says that driverless vehicles will generate $7 trillion—nearly twice the gross domestic product of Japan—in global economic activity by 2050. Some of that will come from what the report calls “previously unimagined applications.” One possibility, the report says, is mobile hair salons. It doesn’t say whether the hair stylist in that robotic salon will also be a robot.
Another way to get a sense of how surprising we might find the changes wrought by autonomous autos is to look back at the transition from horses to cars. Near the end of the 1800s, the horse population was exploding in major cities. The car was not yet being mass-produced, and no one could imagine how else people and things were going to move around town. Yet horse manure was literally choking cities. One observer wrote that the streets of New York were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting…smelling to heaven.” Another person worried that manure would pile up past third-story windows. In 1898, the world’s first international urban-planning conference got so bogged down with manure problems that delegates ended the meeting a week early.
By 1920, 12 years after Ford introduced the Model T, the problem had gone away. And by that point, many people had figured out that amorousness worked a whole lot better in a car than on a horse, inspiring songs ranging from Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle”—with Meat Loaf sandwiched in between.
We can’t wait to hear the songs that emerge once teenage love becomes something experienced in motion. But don’t ask the government types. “That’s one of several things people will do which will inhibit their ability to respond quickly when the computer says to the human, ‘Take over,’” Barrie Kirk, of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, stiffly lamented to a reporter.
Not exactly “Baby, you can drive my car.”