This week saw the arrival of the Google Car in Austin, Texas. This is the next stage in Google's attempt to evaluate how well the car performs outside of California where it has so far performed very well it seems, covering over 1 million autonomous miles. The odd looking vehicle is still someway off production and retail sales but what does it mean for the world when it does start to hit the public highway for real?
As I pondered that question more and more I realised that the impact will be far greater than I originally imagined. And it created even more questions than I expected too. Firstly I began to think about how it would help inebriated patrons get home without the need for an expensive taxi ride. And the fact that you will probably tell your car when you are ready to be picked up via a smartphone app. Your electric powered car may not necessarily be parked close by, but still happily recharging itself via inductive charging bays (bye bye petrol stations?) which don't need to be in center city locations. It doesn't need to be walking distance to anywhere as your car will drop you off at your destination and go find somewhere to park by itself, awaiting your command to return. End of the taxi driver?
Which could mean that the current situation of large outer-city retail parks starting to become less of a trend, with one of the main reasons for these cropping up everywhere is the large area of cheap land for free car parks previously required. A revival of inner-city shopping?
And what about deliveries? A self driving delivery truck can drive all day and all night to shops and customers alike; no need for a break, no complaining about working early or late or weekends. Imagine being able to specify a delivery time to within 20 minutes or so, on a Sunday evening for any product you like. Amazon have recently launched Prime customers 1 hour delivery for London residents - that is the future for the developed world but with the improvement of being 24/7 thanks to automated vehicles. Late night curry?
Parents may find themselves with more time on their hands, why not let the car do the school run or take the kids to their friend's house? Taking someone to or picking them up at the airport at stupid o'clock? And why not reclaim that commuter time that you spend driving to do something more productive? And the benefits to disabled travellers is obvious to see.
Enough about how things will change for drivers and passengers, what about pedestrians? It seems that the evidence so far shows that being a pedestrian or cyclist will be safer than ever. It is expected that autonomous vehicles will evaluate and react to situations much better than human drivers. And when a significant amount of these vehicles are on the roads the thought is that they will be able to communicate with each other. This means efficiencies in driving closer together in a safe way at potentially higher speeds; fewer traffic jams with more vehicles being able to make more use of the existing amount of road.
So who is at risk during this revolution? Potentially the list may include and not limited to taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery drivers and driving instructors - would anyone want to bother with lessons and a driving test when you can be chauffeured around? Other factors to consider, who is liable for any possible damage or harm caused by the vehicle? The passenger? The owner? The manufacturer? What kind of insurance would you need?
Another huge aspect to consider is would the ethos of car ownership change? Why bother owning a car when you can have one arrive on your doorstep within minutes which will take you anywhere for the price per mile travelled rather than thousands of pounds of depreciating metal that sits on your driveway for ~90% of the time?
So many questions and it could be many years before any of this is prevalent enough to get some answers but one thing is for sure when it does arrive, it will bring some massive changes to society.