Self-driving car technology will change more than your car

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.

Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.

The robotisation of transportation – personal, professional, commercial, and industrial – will be one of the most far-reaching and uprooting developments in recent human history. Transportation is a relatively large part of the workforce, and over the coming decades, many of those jobs will disappear – putting a huge strain on the economy and society.

On top of that, car ownership will start to slow down, and since automated cars will make more efficient use of available road surface, we’ll eventually get to the point where we need to rethink our entire infrastructure and the way we design our living space – only 60-70 years after the last time we completely rethought our living space.

We’ve talked about this before, but The Netherlands completely redesigned (at least the western half of) the country for two things: one, to maximise agricultural production, and two, to prepare the environment for mass car ownership. We succeeded at the former (The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the US, but before Germany – despite our tiny surface area), but we only partially succeeded at the latter (traffic jams are a huge problem all over the country).

As an aside: when I say “redesigned the country”, I literally mean that the entire map was redrawn. This map should illustrate really well what the Dutch government, the agricultural sector, and industry agreed upon to do; the ‘messy’ part is the swampy, irregularly shaped way it used to look, while the straight and clean part is what they turned it into. Gone are the irregularly shaped, inefficient patches of farmland only navigable on foot and in boats, and in their place we got large, patches of land, easily reachable by newly drawn roads to make way for cars and trucks (still countless waterways though; they are crucial for making sure the entire western half of the country doesn’t flood).

My parents and grandparents lived through this massive redesign, and according to them, it’s very difficult to overstate just how massive the undertaking really was.

It’s unlikely said redesign will be undone on a massive, regional scale, but at the local level, I can foresee countless pro-car infrastructure and landscaping changes being undone because it’s simply not needed anymore. For instance, many towns in my area – including my own – used to have a waterway (like so) running alongside their Main Street (generally ‘Dorpsstraat’ in Dutch), but in order for a Main Street to be ready for cars, people had to walk elsewhere; the waterways were often filled up and turned into footpaths or sidewalks, so cars could drive on Main Street.

Over the coming decades, I can definitely see such changes being undone in certain places – especially more tourist-oriented towns such as my own. With fewer and fewer cars on the roads, we can start giving space back to people, and while this may not be a big deal in a spacious country like the United States, it will be a revolution here in The Netherlands, the most densely populated western country (that isn’t a city state), and in classic cities like, say, Rome or Amsterdam.

All I’m trying to say is that self-driving car technology will, inevitably, have side-effects that many people simply haven’t even considered yet. All of us consider cars a normal aspect of our everyday lives and environment, to the point where we’ve forgotten just how much space we’ve conceded to the things. Once the dominance of cars starts to come down like a house of cards, our environment will, quite literally, change.


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