Self-driving cars will change the way we travel and work. But according to researchers studying the potential implications of autonomous vehicles (AVs), they could also have a profound impact on another aspect of life: How we have sex.
One recent study concluded that nearly 60% of all Americans have had sex in a car. This time-worn tradition may only increase when you consider that self-driving cars are essentially private rooms on wheels. It’s an insight that comes from a new paper published in the Annals of Tourism Research, which reviewed many studies on both cities and autonomous vehicles to identify burgeoning trends.
“One of the starting points was that AVs will provide new forms of competition for hotels and restaurants. People will be sleeping in their vehicles, which has implications for roadside hotels. And people may be eating in vehicles that function as restaurant pods,” says Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey in the U.K., who led the study. “That led us to think, besides sleeping, what other things will people do in cars when free from the task of driving? And you can see that in the long association of automobiles and sex that’s represented in just about every coming-of-age movie. It’s not a big leap.”
Of the many conclusions the paper drew about the way AVs will reshape urban tourism, perhaps the most surprising was that they’ll also revolutionize red light districts, putting prostitution on wheels. In Amsterdam, the industry (which is far from the regulated sexual utopia it’s often purported to be) was an $800 million business in 2011.
“Particularly in cities where the governance is in place, where prostitution is legal, and regulations allow AVs to develop fast and be on roads quickly, we could see this come together rapidly. Europe is one of those places,” says Cohen. “It’s not impossible or that far-fetched to imagine the red light district on the move. Prostitution doesn’t need to be legal for this to happen. Plenty of illegal activities happen in cars.”
Of course, a red light district on wheels could have profound effects on sex workers and their safety. Cohen is the first to admit that it’s a topic that his paper doesn’t attempt to address, and requires much more study to fully unpack.
It isn’t just the fact that self-driving cars will free up would-be drivers to engage in other activities, as Cohen points out. It’s also that AVs themselves will be better designed for a range of things including sex. These spaces will be private and comfortable–a far cry from the cramped backseat of a T-bird. While at least one industry group has pointed out that AVs will be used for sex, since the new study published, Cohen has been fielding questions about the idea. Carmakers themselves may even begin to rethink their cabin design based on demand. “Of course sex sells,” he says, “and there’s likely to be a capitalization on this in terms of commercial interest.”
How do you explain the fact that automakers haven’t acknowledged how their rooms on wheels will be used by customers? You could blame cultural conservatism, but it’s also a symptom of a common bias when studying the future of cities, Cohen points out. “Urban studies in general tends to conceptualize social life in terms of the daytime.” We ignore what happens at night.
Given the data that’s currently available on sex, cars, and automation, the only lingering question seems to be not if AV sex will take place, but when. “The 2040s,” says Cohen, without hesitation, when I ask. “The whole discussion of AVs being mainstream, and a dominant form of automobile transport–that’s [predicted for] the 2040s. But if we think this through in the moment, a mobile red light district doesn’t require all the cars around it, or a majority of cars around it, to be autonomous . . . There’s no reason it couldn’t happen earlier.”