Just as when dirt paths were first transformed into asphalt highways and horses moved aside for the first automobiles, we are once again on the cusp of an enormous societal shift. With what appears to be the inevitability of self-driving cars merging onto streets, avenues, and freeways across the nation in the years ahead, this transportation transformation involves much more than cars that drive themselves. As an epicenter of technology, the Silicon Valley and cities within it such as Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale are guaranteed to be early adopters of the self-driving car transportation revolution.
On February 26th, California redacted the regulation that all autonomous vehicles (AVs) must have a human behind the wheel as a safety precaution to take control if needed. Waymo, which began in 2009 as Google’s self-driving technology company, is poised to launch a public trial robotaxi service in Phoenix, Arizona during 2018 while General Motors, the nation’s largest automobile manufacturer, is moving into the robotaxi space in 2019.
With the advent and ensuing popularity of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, where users summon a vehicle using a smartphone app when they need a ride, the merger of this concept with self-driving cars seems predestined. Today, most people own multiple automobiles and 95% of the time those cars sit unused, taking up space, costing us money to own, repair and insure. Vehicles also take up valuable urban space; parking lots and garages are currently needed to house all of these cars while not in use. By transitioning to a transportation system in which we beckon a robotaxi to take us wherever we need to go rather than owning individual vehicles, the land occupied by all those parking lots and garages can be repurposed to a higher and better use. USB Bank projects that by the year 2050, urban car ownership will decline by 70% as people shift over to the robotaxi mode of transportation.
There are considerable benefits to autonomous vehicles. Pollution is dramatically reduced since most AVs are electric or use alternative energy sources; the virtual elimination of under-the-influence driving; repurposing of urban land now used for parking lots; the increased freedom of people with mobility issues. Thanks to the “hive communication” technology they utilize, AVs will also reduce road congestion as these vehicles will be able to drive at more consistent speeds and closer together.
But with all new technologies come unforeseen issues. No one anticipated that, when we moved from the horse to the automobile, this would eventually lead to strip malls, urban sprawl, increased fatalities, and road rage. Autonomous vehicles bring with them another set of societal and political concerns including the possibility of restrictions in where and when we can drive a privately-owned car, the possibility that not all robotaxi companies will serve all areas, and even an increased lack of privacy because everything that occurs in a robotaxi will be recorded.
Whether you are for or against self-driving cars and robotaxis, this technology is forging ahead. The probability of autonomous vehicles becoming prevalent in urban areas such as the Silicon Valley is high. Though the advantages on-call robotaxis and self-driving vehicles would provide are numerous, there are other vital social and political issues that will need to be addressed to ensure all people and all areas are being fairly represented.