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When the automobile originally came into production, there was a lot of pushback. “Who needs a car?” people questioned. “A horse can eat grass.” the luddites insisted. “Grass is everywhere. How are you going to put petrol in your automobile?” objectors pointed out with pride.

A hundred years later those objections seem silly. With around 1.2 billion cars on the roads around the world the automobile has obviously caught on. People still ride horses, but only as a recreational choice. In the near future the criticisms of autonomous cars will be similar to those presented by the horse advocates. Obsolete.

via Pepperdine University

via Pepperdine University

The forces behind this transformation are a combination of technological advancements and need. The technology gets all of the publicity, because it’s either amazing or scary to those who witness it. Riding in a car that can navigate the roads without human interference, speed up or slow down based on the surrounding traffic and speed limits can be unnerving or awe inspiring.  

The real impetus for this innovation, though, comes from traffic and not from tech lust. Traffic in many places is unbarable. Cities were built up vertically to accommodate large populations. Transportation is still horizontal, though, and therefor those cities become gridlocked.

And even though it seems like the roads are always jammed with vehicles, most cars sit 97% of the time and that doesn’t include the increasing time they idle in stalled traffic. We are all competing for space on the roadways. The average American commutes 25 minutes, even though their average distance is only about 12 miles.

Miles

via Pepperdine University

This average time is obviously lowered by people in less populated areas of the United States, but shows that we only move approximately 30 MPH during our commutes. This has nothing to do with torque ratios, acceleration or speed limits. This is because of population.

via Pepperdine University

via Pepperdine University

The question then is, so what? Why am I writing about traffic? The reason is there is a resistance to the newest innovation in transportation, the autonomous car. This friction is similar to what was experienced with the car a century ago. People don’t get it. They don’t want to get it. There are so many reasons to reject the new innovation that seeing the future can be uncomfortable.

The beauty of innovation, though, is it the product of necessity. And necessity trumps resistance. We’ve reached a point in our planet’s development where traffic has made alternative solutions to transportation necessary. As we see the developments in autonomous vehicles, the issues of traffic and commuting are often missed in the discussion. The topic usually boils down to whether or not self-driving cars are cool enough to adopt or whether it would be valuable to kick back and do business while the magical robot drives.

But that misses the point. More important than the wow factor is that it will be possible, soon, to have a robot pick you up, take you to work, drop you off and leave to pick up another client.This is the natural extension of services like Uber, but instead of having drivers, the cars will drive themselves,  also opening the door for new ways to pay for transportation. Considering the cost of driving, gas, insurance, registration, maintenance, there would be a cost incentive for consumers and a profit margin for providers too tempting for either to ignore.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 8.24.21 PM

via Pepperdine University

Instead of paying per ride like in a taxi or with Uber, people will be able to subscribe to autonomous vehicle services, much like they subscribe to data plans on their cell phones. And with a subscriber service, it won’t be even necessary to summon the car for the most common tasks. The service will understand your schedule and pick you up at predicted times using access to enormous data that evolves like a bee hive. This hive mind will also understand  the best route, the obstructions, and perhaps others that could ride along when agreed to. All of these data communicating with their robot chauffeurs can reduce traffic jams and the demand of the fleet of cars overall.

The convenience will extend, of course, to be able to summon a car with an app, and the nearest car will be dispatched but in many cases, the cars will know your schedule and arrive expectedly. When the car arrives, it will have your music preferences, travel tendencies, needs, i.e. do you need a desk to work on or perhaps seats for multiple people, all programmed. Your commute just became less stressful, more productive and because the fleet will communicate with itself, customized to your growing needs.

I know that the idea of autonomous vehicles sucker-punches those of us who grew up cruising the strip, parking at the drive-ins, drag racing and all of the nostalgic romance that American car culture provided. But it is the product of necessity, not merely technology gone wild. We will likely be able to get into our gasoline powered cars, rev the engines and peel out for several more decades, but the car driven by humans is going the way of the horse and buggy.

[Photo by Alan / Flickr]