What Does A Robot Car Future Look Like?

A lot has been said about autonomous cars, both the good and the bad. As a thought experiment, I decided to indulge in what is clearly science fiction. I’m trying for more “science” than “fiction” in that it is a speculation about what the world looks based on what where we think autonomous cars are going. I won’t speculate as to the timeframe, although I think we are still at least 2-3 decades away from this future. Replacing or obsoleting nearly 300 million cars and several million jobs isn’t a small undertaking.

Big Wheels

When you stand on the sidewalk in a large urban centre, you’ll see autonomous cars mixed with public transit. The sight of a person behind the wheel of a car or truck will stand out for younger people, because it will be somewhat unusual for those who grew up in larger towns and in cities. Some will live in houses where the garage has been converted to some other use (can you believe it, people used to actually park dirty, smelly machines in there!). For others, the garage remains what it is today, just another place to store your junk. There are newly built houses that have no garage at all.

At some homes, the driveway is gone, or cut in half, replaced by landscaping. For a very few, there may still be a car parked out front, or in the garage. Some of those vehicles will be classic cars, more hobby than normal transportation. For others, it will be the specialty vehicle they use to get out of the city for boating, camping, hiking, etc. A small few will own a conventional car, and drive it themselves, in part because they don’t want to give up the autonomy and freedom that comes with it. But they will be the iconoclast, to the younger generation, the “neighbourhood weirdo” who insists on doing their own thing. A few will have their own personal autonomous car, not because it is efficient, but because they can.

In some parts of the city, as you walk about, you won’t see anything driven by a human that isn’t to do with city services like police, fire protection or specialized maintenance. In cities with a distinct downtown core, all you’ll see on the street are autonomous cars, trucks, vans, busses and trains. The few vehicles with a person at the controls will be piloted by someone wearing a uniform.

Your uncle who used to drive a bus for the local city transit is retired, after he had to find another job when transit went fully autonomous. Your Mom’s cousin, who used to drive long-haul freight, is now managing a small fleet of self-driving local delivery trucks. Your buddy’s grandfather who used to be head of sales at a Ford dealership is now running on-line sales for some boutique home decoration company. Your own grandfather who worked for UPS retired early and is just getting by on a government pension, having had no luck starting a new career.

Steppin’ Out

You are a home-based entrepreneur, your budding company (which is basically just you) offering valuable consulting services for AI startups. Today you have a lunch meeting with a friend across town, and you have time. There’s no rush on this trip. The appointment, and all the details, are already in your calendar. Your virtual assistance, Lana, speaks to you through the home audio system. “This is Lana. You have a lunch meeting. Shall I set up the trip with your usual preferences?” You answer “Yes, please.” It may be a machine, but it doesn’t hurt to be polite.

A brief pause, and Lana responds. “Your car will be here in 20 minutes. It will take you to the train, where you take the Blue Line to the Market Street stop. A car will pick you up there.” You get yourself organized, and a car silently rolls up to the front of the house. “This is Lana. Your car is here” it (or is it she?) informs you. Out the door, into the car, and you’re on the way to the train station. You pull out your phone, and there is your itinerary for the trip, your flashing blue dot following a red line across the map.

At the station, you exit the car. Moments after the door thunks closed, it trundles off, on its way to its next assignment. You walk to the station and down to the platform, where the Blue Line train is waiting. You stride onto the train, take a seat, and within a few minutes, the train is underway. You try to immerse yourself in the latest detective thriller on your phone.

Once in a while you glance up. At one point, you see a major cross-town road with clear divisions between the “old” cars (which have their own lanes) that seem to almost crawl compared to the autonomous cars running in the separate lanes beside them. Those robotic cars are running fast, nose-to-tail, with no worries about someone doing something unexpected. They know when their exit approaches. They can jump out of line easily, and can join the flow of traffic without interrupting it.

Time goes by, and as you approach your next stop, your phone buzzes gently. A message appears, letting you know you are approaching Market Street. The train glides to a halt, the doors open and you make your way to the platform, then up and over to where several cars are waiting. You get into the first one you see, and it politely informs you that you have the wrong car. Embarrassed, you get out, pay closer attention to the digital sign in the front window, and find your car. In you get, and you are on your way. When you arrive at the restaurant, a notification on your smartwatch tells you you’ve been billed for the trip, charged to your credit card.

The whole process is relatively seamless (but not entirely foolproof). Your time waiting is minimal. You spend most of your time travelling, and very little time standing or sitting while you wait for something to happen. Is this a pleasant view of what may come? Or a dystopian world where you are managed and controlled by machines?

Down Home Town

The view from the small towns and countryside is a bit different. There are still plenty of cars with no one driving, but there are also many with a person behind the wheel. These aren’t classic cars, collectibles and toys. These are working vehicles. They don’t just see roads, they drive through fields. They are tools of the trade, not just personal transportation.

The houses in the smaller towns still have garages. Most people still have at least one car, and two isn’t unusual. Many are autonomous, but some are still driven by a person. Most of the autonomous cars are for those people who have to commute to the nearby city to work. There isn’t a train or mass transit available. The closest is the light rail station, about 30 minutes away. There is no on-demand service for cars here. There aren’t enough requests to justify it. Yet.

The town even features something like a car dealership, although not one dedicated to a single brand like it was when you were growing up. This single location sells a few cars, but mainly services those in the area. It also doubles as the local filling station for vehicles still powered by fossil fuels.

Another Heart Breaks

When you are downtown, you no longer see the fleets of yellow taxis that you used to. Instead, you know you can use your phone or smartwatch to request a ride. Or you can walk to one of the many “car stands” where cars are waiting for whoever shows up. Some “taxis” still roam around, their AI systems training to recognize the globally ubiquitous “raised hand” gesture that some people still perform. There aren’t very many, though. Instead, small groups of cars wait at key locations near stores, hotels, restaurants and office buildings. Nothing else parks on the streets. The only traffic lights are to control the pedestrians, because the cars don’t need them.

At the airport, you’ll notice that there are no longer rental car counters, their space now occupied by retail services. Outside, a line of autonomous cars and minivans wait. You pick the one you want, and it takes you to your destination. Need a minivan but one isn’t there? You pull out your phone, or walk up to a kiosk, and request one (which you should have done before you left home, but Lana didn’t remind you. Not sure how she missed that one).

Perhaps you did book one, in which case it is waiting in the reserved area, and the map on your phone tells you exactly where it is parked. Or you can request that it come to the terminal to get you. It knows where you are. Sure, the machine still has some badges that say it is owned and operated by Budget. But it isn’t a traditional rental car company, not the way it used to be.

The auto mall that used to be home a nearly a dozen car dealerships now only has a couple. Most of the space of those remaining organizations is dedicated to service bays, where autonomous cars roll up for regular maintenance. A small sales department handles the few individual sales that still occur. But the rows and rows of shiny new cars is no longer there, tantalizing and enticing you with the latest and greatest. Where the some of the other dealerships used to be is now storage for the fleets of waiting autonomous cars, not yet assigned to some trip. Other lots have been turned over to stores, restaurants, small office buildings or parks.

Don’t Bring Me Down

The bright shiny future comes with some dark sides. It always does. While many, many lives have been saved because of the reduced accidents (and accidents still do happen. The software isn’t perfect), other lives have been turned upside down as their jobs are gone. The world doesn’t need truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers when the machines can drive themselves. If there is a person in a delivery truck for UPS or FedEx, it is to take the package to the door, get a signature and perhaps collect payment. But those are the exception. A lot of delivery trucks also include some kind of companion, like a flying drone or simple humanoid-shaped machine, to take the package from the truck to the door.

Most of the people who used to assemble the millions of cars people bought per year no longer work in the car industry. The staffing levels at the parts suppliers have similarly been reduced. Some people have found new jobs or new careers. Others, though, live off the meagre government support they can get. They can only sit and watch this shiny new future. They don’t get to enjoy it the way some do.

An on-demand autonomous car future means no more spending money to buy (or lease), insure, operate and maintain a car. That is unless you want to own a car (autonomous or otherwise). But for most people, owning a car is simply a burden they don’t want or need. Those that used to own cars remember them being more “boring appliance” than excitement anyways. No more wondering about fuel prices, whether the thing will start on a cold winter’s morning, or where you can park it when you get to the mall. A generation will grow up not knowing what it was like to just jump into the hoopty and go wherever. They’ll see it in old movies and TV shows, and not believe that people actually lived that way.

The Way Life’s Meant To Be?

I’ve tried to paint a picture that is balanced. The future of autonomous vehicles, coupled with advances in AI, has some upsides. But all change comes with downsides. Could it turn out better? Possibly. Could it turn out worse? Most certainly. If the pace of change is rapid enough, millions will find themselves displaced with no job or limited futures, new jobs not having appeared in time. We have, right now, at least 2 generations of people where “going back to school” isn’t considered an option in their mind. They grew up being told that high school or a technical college diploma or university degree was all you needed. Twelve, fourteen or sixteen years of school, a multi-decade career of “real work” and then you retire. It was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now is what they’ll ask themselves.

The ones that adapt and thrive, and not just survive, will be the ones that look beyond what they were told or taught. They will be the ones willing to retrain, to learn new skills, to find other paths. But many won’t, people lost in a wilderness they don’t really understand, caught in a future they didn’t want and didn’t ask for. Change is coming. It is always there, right in front of  us. How we handle as a society will define us for generations to come.