How Autonomous Cars Could Do More Than Change Driving

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

We don’t necessarily know when fully autonomous cars are going to hit the market, but at this point, it isn’t so much a possibility as it is an inevitability. Automated driver aids and safety features that are already available on a lot of vehicles can already do most of the driving on the highway, and a number of luxury cars will soon offer autopilot modes that work like an extremely capable cruise control.

With companies like Google successfully testing fully autonomous vehicles on public roads, it’s entirely plausible that in 25 years self-driving cars will be more the rule than the exception. The advent of autonomous technology will obviously change their experience behind the wheel; drivers will eventually become passengers themselves, allowing them the freedom to do whatever they want while en route to each destination.

It’s easy to see how not needing a driver behind the wheel will change the driving experience. Taxi rides would become significantly cheaper, and people would be less likely to need a personal car unless they lived far outside a city. Car sharing will probably become more common, distracted driving should become much less of an issue, and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about drunk drivers.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, though, and changing the way people drive won’t only affect the people behind the wheel.

Autonomous vehicles, for example, already have a better track record of safety than human-driven vehicles do. When vehicle-to-vehicle communications becomes a reality, they’ll get even safer. On the one hand, that will likely lead to far fewer lives lost on America’s roads, but it will also require fewer responses from emergency personnel.

The police officers, firefighters, and EMTs in charge of responding to traffic incidents will probably appreciate witnessing fewer people die, but at the same time, counties may lay some of them off them due to lack of need. Then again, the cost of responding to all these incidents each year is high, and counties will probably benefit from being able to budget for fewer emergency responses.

Counties will have to come up with some way to reduce costs, though, because since autonomous vehicles will be capable of following all traffic laws including speed limits, traffic enforcement will quickly become much less of a priority for law enforcement. Eventually, speed limits may even become a thing of the past once vehicles are able to coordinate with each other and determine the fastest speed they can safely travel in any condition.

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Without minor traffic violations to ticket, counties will lose a major source of their yearly income. Law enforcement officers will be free to spend their time making their communities better and safer instead of being forced to meet ticket quotas that may or may not exist. Then again, local governments are going to have to find a new source of revenue.

In all likelihood, it will mean raising taxes on something else. But even if the taxpayers are forced to replace that lost revenue with a new tax, they’ll also benefit from a less adversarial relationship with law enforcement officers. If citizens don’t feel like officers are constantly out to ticket them, that can only be a good thing.

You’ll also probably see major changes to public transportation as well. Autonomous cars probably won’t be able to replace trains, and subways will likely continue to be popular, but buses will probably become much less popular. After all, if the cost of a taxi ride is only a few cents more than the cost per mile, paying $2.00 for a bus ride becomes much less appealing.

Luckily, vehicle-to-vehicle communications also promises to streamline traffic flow, minimizing congestion and making it much easier to navigate even densely-populated areas. Without screeching brakes, squealing tires, and loud horns blaring at all hours of the night, cities may actually end up quieter than they are now. There will certainly be some degree of noise pollution that will still exist, but it should be at a much more manageable level.

This is certainly a future that’s a long way off, but at the same time, it’s not one that’s hundreds of years in the future. Autonomous cruise control should become available in two years or less, and Google promises its fully-autonomous car technology will be ready by 2020. The legal regulations for autonomous cars will probably be just as big of a hurdle to overcome as the technology itself, and it will take a while for autonomous cars to become widespread instead of a novelty, but don’t be surprised when society looks like a much different place following the advent of the autonomous car.

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