Most Americans aren’t giving much thought to autonomous automobiles, except when a scare story about one of them crashing pops up in the media. But the auto-autos are coming in 5-10 years, and according to an Aug. 2 New York Times story, planners are contemplating the big changes they will make in all our lives.
Cities and suburbs will look different. Since auto-autos will drop us off at the destination and go park themselves, fewer parking lots and structures will be needed. Architects are already designing multistory parking garages that can be easily converted to office buildings. Parking meters and stop signs will dwindle.
These changes will be especially drastic in St. Louis. For decades we’ve been demolishing buildings to make parking lots. We’ll have to learn to do the opposite. We’ll also have to get over our love affair with stop signs (22,000 in the city alone). The real purpose of many of our signs is to slow traffic, and they won’t be needed because self-driving cars won’t speed. The acute sensing abilities and quick braking of auto-autos will mean that four-way intersections will no longer require four stop signs.
That’ll spell the end of those “After you, Alphonse” routines at the four-way, one of our most charming local customs. The “butterfly stop,” honed to perfection by generations of St. Louisans, will become as much of a lost art as parallel parking.
Another area in which we’ll see change is economic. Municipalities will no longer be able to rely on revenue from traffic tickets. Insurance companies will experience declining demand for their product, because there will be fewer accidents. (A lot fewer: driver error causes 94% of crashes.) For lawyers, this will be a double-whammy. I don’t know how they’ll afford their television commercials.
Campaigns against drunk driving, distracted driving and road rage will no longer need to be waged. The biggest blessing of the auto-auto revolution--and the reason why there won’t be much opposition to it — is that the number of Americans killed in road accidents, about 30,000 annually, will plummet.
Perhaps the most difficult adaptation we’ll have to make will be an inner one. We’ll cease to think of ourselves as drivers. Considering how emotionally wrapped up in driving we are, that might seem impossible. After all, the Mad Max films assured us that even after the collapse of civilization, we’d still be driving.
The transitional period, when human-driven cars and auto-autos share the road, is going to be hard on our egos. It will be borne in on us daily that cars drive themselves better than we can drive them. According to the Times, road engineers are planning for separate lanes to protect impeccable auto-autos from incompetent humans. (Remember that 94% stat?)
There’s keen anxiety in the executive suites of car manufacturers. For decades they’ve sold their product by linking driving to adventure, freedom and sex. But when their commercials can no longer show drivers with their hands on the wheel, the fantasy will inevitably fade.
When we don’t control cars, the pride of owning one will diminish. Some will still want to impress the neighbors with a gleaming SUV parked in the driveway, but others will just call an auto-auto when they need one.
For a time, Hollywood will keep our old fantasies alive. In Fast and Furious 17, the immortal Sylvester Stallone will star as the last human driver in America, pitted against a fleet of evil Communist robocars. Sly will win, of course, but I doubt the franchise has much of a future.
Gentle romcoms will reconcile us to the new reality. In Toyota My Love, Matt Damon will play a lonesome widower. Late for a visit to the grandkids, he tries to make his car — voiced by Emma Stone —break speed limits and run red lights. In reality, manufacturers will whittle away the ability of owners to seize the controls, because manufacturers will be bearing the legal liability. In the movie, Emma refuses Matt because she...cares about him. For a while they motor along sedately, exchanging endearments. But in the bittersweet finale, Emma comes to neglect Matt, preferring to communicate with her fellow auto-autos.
In this innovation, called V2X, cars will cooperate to avoid hazards and keep traffic flowing smoothly. Meaning that the car, not the human, will pick the route.
Young people are already adapting to the new reality. Many aren’t eager to learn to drive. They prefer using Uber to owning a car. Basically, they don’t want a chore like driving to distract them from their phones.
As for me, I’ll be on my bike — a vehicle powered by my own muscles and directed by my own brain. I invite hardy free spirits to join me. For us, auto-autos will be much better than humans. There’s minimal danger they will hit us, and zero danger they will curse us and throw beer cans at us.