Prediction: In only a couple of years, a robotic cab ride becomes a part of the Vegas weekend, and someone you know owns a car that parks itself—as in, he pulls up to the storefront, walks inside the shop, and lets the car drive away to find its own space.
The technology already exists to make these predictions a reality. In recent months we’ve seen breathless YouTube videos from Volvo and Ford, a constant stream of press about a Google car, Elon Musk’s proclamation that human drivers will be illegal, and just a few days ago, an Audi drove itself from San Francisco to New York City.
The biggest hurdles left for self-driving cars are some technology refinements like weather-proofed sensors and government regulation, but Las Vegas (being the bone-dry, White Tiger sanctuary it is) could get away with offering driverless taxis as a novelty. Similarly, a private retail parking garage could bend public safety regulations to redefine “concierge service” for its customers. A novelty ride on the Vegas Strip and piloted parking at your local mall could actually kick-start the early adoption process for autonomous vehicles, launching whole world of automobile features that have nothing at all to do with driving, but a lot more to do with extending the digital lifestyle. Those features may entice us into traveling slower.
A Sweet Ride
Imagine what’s possible when a self-driving car syncs with your smartphone. How long will it be before adding a dentist appointment to your calendar prompts an offer for a Google Car to come pick you up?
The pickup time will of course be perfectly Waze-calculated to deliver you to your dentist’s office on time. (Not the normal, human-calculated, wait-until-the-last-minute-and-end-up-speeding departure time.) Perhaps Google notices you have a Hangout scheduled 60 minutes before your appointment; then they’ll offer to send a car even earlier, so you can begin your call and your commute at the same time. The car will be tricked out with an array microphone, curved OLED monitor, and Gigabit Wireless connection. And you will take that car—not just for the productivity of stacking errands and tasks, but also because the car will have better conference call acoustics than the open office spaces where you work.
That self-driving car will not speed off when you get in but rather select a route designed to help you be both productive and on time; a path that ensures no wireless drop-outs, avoids adding congestion to fast lanes, and keeps a pace carefully metered to match the end of your call with your arrival at the dentist’s office for your new crown. For roboto-mobiles, accuracy will be more important than speed. Self-driving cars actually represent not just transportation but a bundle of features, and that is why they may become mainstream much more quickly than conventional wisdom expects. This is also why they will go slower.
Services like Uber are already weaning many drivers from the wheel; the additional familiarity of piloted parking and autonomous zones will build confidence that we can do this. Then the killer apps of productivity and entertainment will create a value for autonomous lanes where it is okay to let go of the wheel, probably starting with intercity freeway travel. These lanes will inevitably be safer, as occupants of autonomous vehicles are able to Instagram their way home without consequence—while human drivers continue to text their way into fatal crashes with increasing frequency. As behavior shifts, the safety stats will pile up, and autonomous will become the preferred mode. Soon, being in a car means a focus more on a digital experience and less on driving. As the equation tips in favor of autonomous, H.O.V. may come to designate special Human Operated Vehicle lanes.
Aspiring to the Slow Lane
Humans sometimes speed for fun, but more often we do it because we are trying to minimize the unproductive time spent trapped in a car. We work until the last possible minute, squeezing in calls and e-mails, then rush to our destination. Traffic congestion happens because we lack complete information about transit conditions and lack options to leave at any time but during periods of congestion.
When you take attentive driving out of the automotive experience, transportation becomes time that can serve our increasingly digital lifestyles, and that changes our relationship with speed. Mass transit commuters know a lot of this already. Look how they spend their time on the subway, and you’ll get an idea of how entertainment and productivity features are already influencing the millennial flight to bike, bus, and train, and how they will accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles. However, mass transit cannot offer private conference call setups, personalized routes, or customized schedules. Automakers are already working to reinvent traditional car features around the digital lifestyle, but they are hamstrung by safety concerns. Driverless fits the ad-hoc lifestyle, and it’s the true opportunity to design the digital lifestyle car, or as Mercedes recently showed at CES, a living room on wheels.
If we add all this up, we are on the cusp of a new movement, one where going slower in an automobile becomes a lifestyle choice for many people. And that changes everything—the car experience, ownership, what it means to drive, the whole fume equation. Even the way we build cities can be reimagined. So while the conversation on self-driving cars seems to be locked on safety and a morbid watch for the first serious accident, I prefer to think about how removing the driver could completely change our automotive experience. Just consider the outcomes of a Slow Traffic Movement.
Changing Your Car’s Metabolism
If a car can drive itself, we can reconsider how we lay out infrastructure. A parking garage can now have graduated levels ending in five-foot-tall floors with spaces leaving only a couple of inches. A suburban home can have a maker space in place of the traditional garage, now a small underground car-sized cubicle where the family auto sneaks away to sleep and charge.
In terms of charging or hydrogen fill-up or battery swap, a major challenge is laying out fueling at the scale of human habit. That scale looks like gas stations, with locations that serve convenience and procrastination. Laying these things out at the scale of robotics means fewer and more opportunistic fill-ups. Two or three well-placed hydrogen stations or Tesla battery swaps could serve cars that service themselves at 3:00 am rather than dozens of human filling stations that service cars when their owners finally realize they are out of fuel.
As self-driving cars proliferate, urban dwellers might not even need to own one, as driving becomes something you request based on your location, time, and rates. Ownership would be left for the car enthusiast or rural denizen.
What Slow Looks Like
Miraculous things can happen when one simply slows down an automobile.
Slower means less of the bad stuff, like accidents and fatalities. When you lower your driving speed, your risk of death plummets. On average, belted drivers have a 60% risk of being fatally injured when the change in velocity is 50 mph and a 17% risk when it is 40 mph. With slower speeds—and with the fewer crashes already inherent to autonomous vehicles, thanks to sensors, automatic braking, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication—we actually have a moon shot at engineering death out of driving. Slower means more of the good stuff, like productivity, leisure, and sleep.
Slower is easier on cars, roads, and you. Cars and roads last longer when you slow down, and you’ll use less fuel. Humans will suffer less traffic noise, enjoy more predictable travel outcomes, and can avoid the stress of constant flight-or-fight decision-making (a.k.a. road rage).
Slower makes the most of in-demand road space. Human reaction times require big gaps between cars to safely travel at 65 mph—big gaps that put road capacity to waste. Even at 45 mph, a computer’s reaction time is so much faster than a human’s that it can deliver an increase of 40% or more in road capacity utilization. Autonomous cars can corner and accelerate in an energy-optimized manner, and robot drivers will never miss the light while checking Yelp.
Take out thrill-seeking, and driving is most often a question of getting somewhere else at a certain time. We want to get there in less time to increase opportunities for entertainment and activity. Speed is a function of time, so productivity and boredom are the real reasons for going fast. The strangest part of this collision between our double-time, hurry-up, rush-around, get-there-yesterday culture with the slow-down, take-a-call, post-a-tweet, get-there-on-time transportation model is just how compatible they are. Slow traffic buys us time and gives us choices about what to do with it.
We humans like to live in clustered proximity, and we may never be able to entirely engineer our way out of long car trips and teeming highways. But given what we’ll do in our slower, happier confinement, we may not want cars to go away at all. Welcome to the slow traffic movement!