How will self-driving cars change society?

Over the past few years, self-driving cars have received a lot of attention and the buzz has intensified this month with the announcement that GM plans to acquire San Francisco startup Cruise Automation for reportedly more than $1 billion.

When people talk about self-driving cars, the discussion typically centers around a few important topics:

1) When will we see self driving cars on the market (e.g. In January, Robert Scoble wrote that we’re at least a decade out). GM’s acquisition of Cruise has some thinking that GM could add Cruise’s technology and have cars ready for market in the next couple of years.

2) How will the market progress: Will it be a gradual evolution starting with certain self-driving features to assist drivers like auto-parking, lane keeping assistance, radar-assisted cruise control, etc.? Or will it be a hard-switch over (Google-style) to cars that can drive around town without a human inside.

3) What are the ethical questions surrounding autonomous cars – such as how should a car be programmed to deal with an unavoidable accident: should it act to minimize the overall loss of life or try to protect the car’s occupants at all costs?

To be sure, these are all important questions, but I’m most curious about the matter of how self-driving cars will change human behavior and society.

For example, when we’re not forced to pay attention to the road, how will we spend all this newfound free time? Will we end up working more, where the car becomes another extension of the office? Will we spend more time on entertainment and social interactions? That’s probably the only way to push daily media consumption beyond today’s already high 8 hours per day. Or, will we take the time to look out the window, enjoy nature and people-watch?

And, will self-driving cars impact where we live? If commuting becomes less of a nuisance, will people start moving back to the suburbs, reversing today’s urban trend? The invention of the automobile pushed us into the suburbs, but starting in 2011, the rate of urban population growth outpaced suburban growth. Now will self-driving cars push us back out to the suburbs once again?

Lastly, the case for self-driving cars usually includes the idea that people will start sharing cars more and there will be fewer cars on the road. An autonomous driving system could become like public transportation at scale, with a self-driving car picking you up within minutes at any corner and dropping you off wherever you want to go, while you share the ride with a few other people that have a similar trip at that time.

However, what if the enjoyment of not having to drive means that people get the convenience of public transport without having to sit next to the guy with the flu? And this means that instead of reducing the total number of cars on the road (and the associated traffic and environmental effects), we will see a dramatic increase of cars on the road?

I don’t have the answers for these questions right now, but I’m certain that self-driving cars will create a profound shift in human behavior and society beyond what we’re thinking about today.


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