Imagine a world where everyone is rich, a world where everyone enjoys the trappings of wealth and the privileges that come along with it, a world where everyone lives a Scrooge McDuck life where the estates stretch for miles and swimming pools are filled with money. “Impossible!” some will say. The economy runs on a winner-take-all rule and that rule holds true in all fields from surgery to steak houses. A few will be the best and they’ll win the bulk of the money. There will always be a few that are wealthier than others. There can be only one Scrooge McDuck.
But what if wealth is not relative but absolute? What if the definition of wealthy is measured by the trappings themselves and not who has more of them? If so, the world is about to get much, much wealthier. Soon everyone will have access to one of the great movie cliches of the rich and powerful. Soon everyone will be able to snap their fingers and call for their chauffeur to bring their limousine around. Soon, we’ll live in the world where everyone is able to relax as a chauffeur takes us where we want to go.
This is one way to look at the coming of the computer software that will drive a car from point A to point B. Computer scientists will talk about routing algorithms and machine vision software that can distinguish between a walking person and a lamppost. Physicists will talk about laser range finders and cameras. Lawyers will talk about liability. But everyone else will talk about the pleasure of having a chauffeur who will take them where they want to go.
Progress in the area has been incredibly rapid. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored their first “Grand Challenge” in 2004 along a 150 mile course in the middle of 7nowhere between California and Nevada. They asked university teams to build a car that could follow the road in the desert without a driver and the best car from Carnegie Mellon made it only 7.32 miles before it was stopped by a rock. A rock!
The next race in 2005 was very different. Five teams could finish the course and 22 made it farther than the 7.32 miles that the 2004 winner completed. Today the project isn’t advanced enough for DARPA and the researchers have largely moved on to other projects. Private corporations are working to bring all of this to the marketplace and they’re experimenting with cars that either help in little ways or take over and do everything. Some are talking about small features that just help a human, like watching for someone in the way if you’re trying to change lanes.
Others are aiming higher and they’re so far along that people are only half-joking that the driverless car is literally just around the corner. If you live in California or Nevada, where the cars are now street legal, this may be true. Google has been talking publicly about their car which they say has gone hundreds of thousands of miles on the roads of California and Nevada without an accident. They aren’t alone either.
Now car manufacturers are trying to leapfrog each other by sending their cars on longer and longer trips. Google’s cars are commonplace in Silicon Valley. Mercedes sent their futuristic silver blob floating around San Francisco while discretely alerting the media and all of the Twitter users, bloggers and Redditors it could call. 223 Audi sent a car from San Francisco to Las Vegas. As I’m finishing this, Delphi announced plans to send their car on a 3,500 mile trip across America. 46 Sony has even announced their own movie comedy about autonomous cars. 170
These cars will change everything. Sure the computer may drive like an old lady studying to pass the driver’s license practical exam because it stops so firmly at each and every stop sign. Sure the algorithm may be impossibly earnest because it actually follows the speed limit as if it were a law of physics. But it will give everyone the freedom of billionaires to snap their fingers and call for a chauffeur.
Some of the changes will be obvious. People will have more time because they won’t be driving a car. Everyone will be able to send text messages from the car because the computer will be watching the road. Others aren’t so obvious. The world will need fewer and fewer 8parking spots, upending the investment in parking garages and the vast paved fields around shopping malls. Pre-teenagers won’t need to wait for a driver’s license to escape from their parents’ clutches. The selfdriving cars may end up doing more than taking us from place to place, they might end up bringing a hot dinner and delivering medical care, too. Matt McFarland at the Washington Post noted that it’s quite probable that the robot cars will save more lives than ending war, if only because many more people die on the highways each year than on the battlefield. 135
What follows are 99 short chapters examining 99 different guesses about how our cities, our homes and our lives will change when cars drive themselves. Some are almost guaranteed to come to pass and others are just good guesses. Some will probably be wrong. Every part of our homes, our towns and our lives will be upended and it’s hard to guess accurately about how all of the pieces will fit back together after the self-driving car smashes the world to bits.
What is clear, though, is that everyone will be much wealthier in absolute terms. We’ll waste less time stuck in traffic, we’ll burn less energy getting from A to B and we’ll enjoy the capricious freedom that used to be the sole province of the people wealthy enough to employ a chauffeur. We’ll all be able to snap our fingers like Scrooge McDuck and go where we want to be.