Self-driving cars are not the future

Imagine you’re in the New York area in 1805. Traveling to Philadelphia takes you roughly a day and a half. You must stop to refuel – yourself, your companions, the horses, and so on along the way. Compared to today, travel is slow, uncomfortable, and fraught with risk. Only one century later, railroads have spread across the country, like fire across a wheat field, and your travel time is cut to only several hours. Better yet, you don’t have to pay much attention any more, at least not once you board the train. But soon, just a couple of decades more go by and then there is that damnable automobile, and while it brings you far greater mobility it again steals your time away from more productive things.

Back in the modern day, travel by rail is still a widely-used mode of transport within and across many developed nations, but travel by automobile is the clear winner due to the greater access it provides. People drive across towns, cities, states, and countries. The average American drives roughly 13,000 miles per year as of mid-2016, according to the US Federal Highway Administration, all working out to roughly an hour a day per American. Looking at data from several European nations, a 2012 European Commission (pdf) study uncovered a daily automotive commute of about 40 minutes per day, per person. All of these cars and roads and parking lots take up enormous amounts of space. All for little more than the draining away of millions of collective hours per day and millions of acres of land.

Close, but… no, not quite close at all.

Self-driving cars will return some of this time, and some of this space, but by themselves they are not the future. And they certainly aren’t the 21st-century equivalent to the “Space Race”. The ‘Race, for all its great scientific achievements, was a race between superpowers seeking to claim technological superiority over one another. For Elon Musk of Tesla, for Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and for the many other lesser-known champions of the actual movement going on all around us, it isn’t about one country proving superiority over another, and it’s not about just automating transport. It’s about something far greater.

For now, let’s focus on the self-driving cars.

Imagine you’re in the New York area in 2027. You wake up, perhaps an hour later and better-rested than you had to 10 years ago. You have some breakfast, feed your kids and send them off to school. You take the dog out to run around the larger yard you have as you no longer have a need for a garage or a driveway.

You tap your watch, your glasses, perhaps a microcomputer in the back of your hand or forearm if that’s the way things go, or maybe you simply speak, but through whatever method a car just shows up. It takes you where you tell it to take you. You pay a small fee and get there in half the time it took you in 2017 because there is no traffic. You might even get there in a quarter of the time because there is no traffic and the car is so safe it can travel at 100 MPH or more. Perhaps you intentionally pay for the “slow trip” at half price to enjoy the scenery while you start your work day during the ride into work since you don’t have to pay attention to driving any more.

You get into the city. The car drops you where you told it to and speeds off. You go about your day. You had such a stress-free experience in the morning, which will almost surely lead to a longer natural lifespan, that you’re much more productive through the morning. As lunch time approaches, you leave the office and walk across the street with some colleagues without having to wait for walk signals because the few cars up here just flow around you. Most of the traffic that used to be in the city has been moved underground over the last few years, leaving you with yet another stress-free experience. You notice fewer car parks than there used to be, all replaced by more useful real estate: more offices, apartment buildings, restaurants. More regular ‘ol, green-spaced, people-parks to relax in, you think. You go back into the office and eventually your work day ends. Maybe you work longer than you used to since you’re home in 5 minutes instead of the old 30-minute trip only a decade ago.

The future I’m alluding to will be even more different than proposed here, but I’m intentionally keeping the framing small for now.

Back again to the modern day. Looking forward it’s not self-driving cars that are the future, though they are clearly a step in the right direction. The real future movement, and it’s going on right now, isn’t a race for dominance to see who builds the plastic-and-metal box that can get us from point A to point B (that race has been over for a while now and Tesla won, although we could argue the meaningful part of that race is mass acceptance or mass utilization of automated transport). It’s not actually defined by any single one of the many more technologies coming this century that play a role in it. Technologies that may democratize our energy production and our physical product creation. Others that may enable us to work and connect both more closely and yet across greater distances than ever before. Still others that may mean we never again leave a single person to suffer hunger or homelessness. And then there are those inventions and innovations that will let us take our next bold steps into that place that Sir Arthur C. Clarke once called, “the sea of stars”.

If you think self-driving cars are this century’s ‘Race, think again. New technologies are coming that will radically reshape our very concept of the world and our abilities to create, to connect, and to communicate. The real race is not about a box, once a rocket and now a car, that takes us from A to B and shows off some nation’s might. It is, instead, driven along by those advances that will free up our collective time and space. The real 21st-century race is about leading the next great expansion of human civilization.

I’ll be writing more on each of these coming technologies, several already realized and others still in their infancy, in the weeks and months to come.

Stay tuned.

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