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Autonomous Vehicles

What do pretty much all current participants in the autonomous vehicle (driverless) ecosystem today have in common? Be it tech from Tesla, Waymo, Uber, the legacy (petrol-based) automakers, infrastructure enhancements from civil engineers, and law and regulations from various government bodies?

They are all discussing and developing toward a permissive* driverless landscape where autonomous vehicles and human-piloted vehicles will coexist. Mostly absent from that discussion is the idea of compulsory autonomous vehicles and the huge shift it can make in how we move about. We'll discuss that here.

retro futuristic drawing of autonomous car on highway

The Early Years

As of this writing, it'll be awhile before we hop into our car and say "Home, James". While Tesla might have something approaching driverless tech, they still aren't really there. The very first "real" full autonomy vehicles will likely be in fleet service of some kind. Maybe that's a driverless taxi service or long-haul interstate-centric trucking. What it probably won't be is individually-owned vehicles at the retail level. At least not for most of us --  at least not anytime soon.

The Obvious Benefits

The upside to using a self-driving vehicle within a permissive autonomous society includes all the obvious benefits that most of us might imagine, such as

  • You could nap or otherwise be occupied during your commute or other long drive.

  • Stay out late and possibly get plastered with no worries about how you'll get home safely and no risk of a DUI.

  • Reduce your likelihood of being in an at-fault accident.

  • Self-parking; you could exit your car at a store front then it goes off to find parking on its own. When you're done, your car could come back and pick you up, all nice and cool (or warm) inside.

  • Complete a many hours long road trip far faster by not stopping overnight along the way (naps in the car)

  • Children, elderly, or those with certain health issues that prevents driving could still get around without a driver.

* Permissive means not compulsory. That is, human-piloted vehicles share the road with autonomous vehicles.

But the real impact of autonomous vehicles on society happens when/if it become compulsory. That is, no more human drivers, period. In addition to all the benefits described above, just imagine the new ideas and modes of operation that become possible once and only when humans are no longer piloting any vehicle on the road -- with the exception of certain industrial applications such as road construction and infrastructure maintenance vehicles and such.

Automobile Redesign


Cars and trucks no longer need to include a driver position. No steering wheel, shifters, pedals, or other controls to operate the movement of the vehicle. You'd still have all the other stuff such as climate control, entertainment options, navigational, etc. Perhaps you could opt for much darker glass that is presently illegal.

Infrastructure Redesign

This is where things get really exciting. With all vehicles being autonomous (computer operated), these elements of infrastructure and other trappings of a human-piloted landscape could be radically different:

> I2V: This stands for "Infrastructure to Vehicle". This means fixed assets like roadways, intersections, draw-bridges, railroad crossings, etc. all communicate their status to all approaching vehicles. That way, the cars know what to expect and can compensate -- all far faster and more accurately than a human can.

> V2V: This stands for "Vehicle to Vehicle". This means all the cars in the immediate area communicate with and know where each other are, their speed, direction of travel, how quickly they can accelerate or slow down, size of vehicle, mission of vehicle (emergency such as ambulance, fire, police), and myriad other metrics that give a complete picture of what's what in the immediate vicinity.

> No Traffic Signals: Computers don't need traffic lights. Autonomous vehicles can simply continue right through a major intersection, maybe only barely slowing down. AV tech doesn't need the spacing and buffers that humans do. Traffic could cross from any direction with margins of only a few feet without collision. The number of vehicles that could travel through an intersection each day could double, perhaps more.

> Tailgating: Computers have lightning fast reflexes. Imagine how many more cars can occupy the same mile of roadway if they all were tailgating the car in front. And with that close distance, the "drafting" effect kicks in, giving better energy economy.

> Speed Racer: Because computers have ultra-fast reflexes and each car knows what all the other cars are doing in a predictable manner, then they can travel much faster in certain scenarios where speeds are generally constant, such as an interstate highway. Imagine no speed limits, or speed limits that are far higher than today. A two lane interstate could have two speed expectations. The left lane for autonomous vehicles capable of, say, 120 MPH and the right lane for vehicles that max out at a lesser speed. Vehicles could automatically change lanes based on their speed and that of nearby vehicles.

> Traffic Law Enforcement: Various law enforcement agencies can focus on other tasks. Speeding tickets and DUIs would be a thing of the past.

> Insurance Reform: Car insurance costs would plummet and there would be a new model for universal coverage. Risk is no longer indicated by the driver. Indeed, nearly all risk is eliminated. We'd still have coverage for force majeure and other wacky one-offs, but the vast majority of insurance costs would be eliminated because we're removing the vastly-largest component of risk and unpredictability -- the human driving the car.

> Lives Saved: Presently, over 30,000 people are killed each year in auto wrecks and well north of 100,000 are injured, many of them grievously. Imagine those numbers dropping by 95% or more. That is staggering to even contemplate. The daily gentle admonishment we give our loved ones to "drive carefully" and "be safe" are words we'd no longer utter! Imagine that! No longer worry that your spouse won't make it home alive because some dumbass was playing with his/her phone.

> Radically Different Cityscape: Without human drivers, that means our car-centric cities can be designed very differently. For example, stores and office buildings would no longer need onsite parking for cars (deliveries would still need loading docks or other related areas). There could be large dedicated parking lots scattered about a city every few miles instead of being located in front of every store and building. Homes would no longer need garages -- at least for cars. Your car can pick you up and drop you off anywhere. With no human drivers, we no longer need to design infrastructure to include nearby parking.

> Vehicle Loaning: Some people who have no need to store personal belongings in a car while not in use could participate in a pool vehicle program. e.g. Two people owning the same car. Or belonging to a shared car club that owned a fleet of cars. Or if you owned your own car and you are home all day, your car could be out and about, hauling people around locally like an unmanned Uber of sorts. You could earn extra money while not needing your vehicle. 

I'm sure you can imagine other ways that compulsory autonomy could change society. Some of those changes are good. A lot of what I'm saying sounds pie in the sky. Compulsory autonomy will not happen in my lifetime. But it's sure cool to think about.

Permissive full autonomy, on the other hand, is quite likely to happen in my lifetime. By the time I'm too old to drive (probably around 2045 or so), I expect autonomous vehicles to be widely available. Man, I can't wait.


My vision of compulsory autonomy isn't without its downsides. And I'm not necessarily saying I'm totally for it. It's just a vision of what could be. Not necessarily what will be or even totally what I'd want it to be. Sure, in a way I'd like to see it. There's certainly benefits. But those benefits come with a price.

A lot of who we are as Americans is tied up in our automobiles. America is a car culture unlike most other countries. It's hard to believe we'd give up driving our cars. A lot of why we buy the cars we do is for the identification, fun, and thrill of driving them. All that goes away with compulsive autonomy. I mean, if you can't actually drive the thing, then why have anything other than a generic people and thing mover? The individualism, the expression, the engine held tame under foot, your hand on the wheel, that call of the road, only exists when we're in control. That would be a sad loss and a seismic shift in what it means to be American. I totally get it. Motorcycles would probably cease to exist, certainly not mixing with full compulsive autonomy. Which is sad because I've driven motorcycles my entire life.

But worry not. Compulsive autonomy, if it happens at all, will be many decades away. Maybe a century. I'll be pushing up daisies and so will you. It might be something your triple-great grandkids see.

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