While developers like Google believe autonomous vehicles (AV) – or self-driving cars – will be market-ready by 2018, others are more sceptical.  Whether the reasons are legal, technological or human, doubters suggest there may be lots of reasons why this particular utopian vision will not be ready for prime time.

AVIndeed, it may be that a fully autonomous vehicle has a ways yet to travel – but I expect that we will see aspects of the technology introduced ASAP, if not actually mandated.

The reason?  Safety.

If ten of thousands of people can be saved from being maimed or killed by the introduction of sensors that can respond more quickly than any human is capable of – and then override an inattentive driver – why wouldn’t we want that technology in every new vehicle?  Indeed, why wouldn’t government require it?

Or if not government, then how about the insurance industry?

And that’s when things get interesting.  Presumably there will be a substantial discount for any car outfitted with accident-preventing features – and a commensurate increase for any car that doesn’t.  Arguably, the differential may be so great that many people simply won’t be able to afford the liability of not having the latest technology, and also won’t be able to afford a new vehicle that does.

They will then be faced with choosing the obvious alternative: car-sharing.

Already car-sharing offers a practical alternative for those who don’t need, don’t want or can’t afford a full-time vehicle that sits idle most of the time.  And even if it won’t be possible for some time to call up an AV that can drive independently to a customer’s location, the cost advantage of subscribing to a service that offers the latest options, without the burden of individual liability insurance, will make car-sharing substantially more competitive than it already is.

Further, the fleet managers will maintain incredibly complex vehicles impossible for the average person to service on their own or provide a performance guarantee for resale.

A further advantage to government will be the ability to introduce road pricing almost invisibly – as a tax on each trip or contract, integrated into the overall cost, calculated by the internal software, paid through the service provider, without the consumer being necessarily aware of the tax imposed.

Oh, there will be lots of unexpected and unpredictable consequences, as there always is with revolutionary technologies and the behaviours that result.  But I believe the reason this advance will occur far faster than many expect is the disproportionate effects of insurance costs once  the technology is mandated.  And given the number of lives it can save, how can it not be?


Credit to Michael Ohnemus, a student of Urban Studies professor Anthony Perl, whose research paper on AVs stimulated these ideas.