Ars Technica is running a series of articles on the automation of road transport. The second article looks at the benefits of cars that drive themselves. Safety advantages are obvious. More interesting are the economic advantages. In cities, taxis are more efficient than privately owned cars. But:
So if taxis are so great, why aren’t they popular everywhere? The problem is that when you rent a taxi, you’re not only renting a car, but you’re hiring a driver as well. And human labor is expensive. So taxis only make sense financially in places where parking is so expensive or hard to find that driving your own car isn’t worth the trouble. Everywhere else, the cost of the driver is high enough that driving and parking your own car is a better deal.
Self-driving cars offer all the benefits of taxis for the cost of a traditional car. A self-driving vehicle will be able to show up on demand, transport passengers to a destination, and then drive off to pick up more passengers, refuel, or find a parking space. When self-driving taxis are readily available, many people—even far from dense urban areas—will find renting both cheaper and more convenient than owning a vehicle.
It’s easy to imagine being able to hire a taxi to your exact location from your GPS smartphone, have it turn up in minutes thanks to automated routing and demand prediction, and be able to choose from a selection of vehicles so you can get a pickup-truck to take you home from the furniture shop with your new sofa.
The article goes on to discuss the changes in parking and vehicle design that self-driving cars will enable, as well as the retail, freight and courier industries.
I have one concern: I enjoy driving and motorcycling, and it’s only a matter of time before human drivers are made illegal for health and safety reasons. There will be other reasons, too. Some kinds of automated congestion management may not work with a mixture of human- and computer-controlled cars. For example, long convoys with only inches between each vehicle, or intersections where conflicting flows of cars are tightly interleaved. Driving for pleasure may one day be confined to the track.