Monday, April 24, 2017

The unexpected ways our lives will change when cars drive themselves

Steven Overly
April 5
Washington Post

The expected shift to battery-powered vehicles that drive themselves will have repercussions that extend far beyond U.S. roadways — altering industries as varied as real estate, oil, auto repair and retail.

At least that’s the view of Benedict Evans, a longtime tech observer and partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. In a recent blog post titled, “Cars and second-order consequences,” Evans speculates on the many ways the technology will change the lives of motorists and the economy at large

“Something will happen, and probably something big,” he writes.

Here are seven of his boldest and most interesting predictions.

Fewer truckers will be impacted than expected.

Many economists have cautioned that self-driving vehicles will displace humans who earn a living behind the wheel. The truck drivers who haul shipments cross-country stand to be impacted significantly, eliminating a lesser-skilled occupation that can be lucrative, if arduous. Evans writes that these concerns may be overblown, largely because trucking as a profession is already falling out of favor.

More truck drivers are retiring or quitting than can be hired to replace them, according to Evans, and the number of departures is expected to grow during the same period that self-driving technology gains wider acceptance. “Effectively all current truck drivers will have quit anyway — you won’t replace them, but you won’t necessarily put anyone directly out of work,” he writes.

Traffic congestion could actually get worse.

Many expect self-driving cars will lead to less roadway congestion because there will be fewer accidents, fewer parked cars, and higher speed limits. That all may be true, Evans writes, but removing those inconveniences could also lead more people to make use of these vehicles. That becomes more plausible if low-cost ride-sharing options are available.

“If you reduce congestion, then more people will drive, either taking new trips or switching from public transport, and congestion might rise back to where you started,” Evans writes.

That also raises the question of whether buses and light rail systems will still be necessary, or whether they could be reduced or replaced by ride-sharing alternatives.

Cars can bear witness to crime.

Self-driving cars will come equipped with cameras, lasers and other sensors designed to study the vehicle’s surroundings. While this information helps the vehicle navigate its surroundings, it could eventually be used in other ways as well, Evans writes.

Criminal investigations are one potential application. Cars that observe suspicious activity or travel near the scene of a crime could be queried for images and other data.

“An autonomous car is a moving panopticon,” Evans writes. “They might not be saving and uploading every part of that data. But they could be.”

We could buy fewer cigarettes.

Gas stations pull in a lot of their revenue from convenience store merchandise. One of the big sellers? Cigarettes. More than half of cigarette sales in the U.S. occur at gas stations, Evans writes, but electric cars could effectively eliminate that point of purchase.

“There are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption — that cigarettes are often an impulse purchase and if they’re not in front of you, then many smokers are less likely to buy them,” Evans writes.

That could save many lives per year, he predicts.

Air bags can be eliminated.

The notion that car accidents will become a thing of the past once vehicles drive themselves will have far-reaching implications, Evans writes. One of the ancillary benefits: There will be no need for air bags, crumple zones, and other safety features currently built into cars. That would reduce the weight and complexity of vehicle design, making cars more energy efficient and less expensive in the process.

No more searching for parking.

Circling the block for a parking spot will stop when self-driving vehicles get their start, Evans predicts. Personal cars can park themselves somewhere, perhaps even miles away, and shared vehicles can simply move on to their next ride. Either way, that could fundamentally alter our transportation habits and how cities are designed. For example, real estate developers will not need to account for parking on their properties — freeing up that space for other uses.

Cars will become less of a money pit.

Americans incur a sizable chunk of their mechanic bills for two reasons: collisions and engine repairs. The latter accounts for about half of spending on car maintenance, Evans writes. But if electric cars run on batteries and self-driving cars avoid accidents, those expenses could dwindle dramatically.

“In the longer term, this change might affect the life span of a vehicle,” Evans writes, as there will be fewer totaled and broken-down vehicles.

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