Last week the world shifted. Most people didn't feel it, and many people that saw the shift didn't view it as monumental but I did. The shifting was caused by Google's self-driving car. While self-driving cars have been the grist of science fiction for years and many car companies have had test-track systems that required extensive road sensoring, the Google car was mostly a software triumph with modest special hardware. The costs are in line for deployment. The period of time it will take to bring the innovation from the experimental phase to deployment should be less than 5 years.
The reason that the innovation represents a technological earthquake is that it will fundamentally change transportation—and society along with it. It will disrupt many very large industries and create massive political and cultural debate.
The car will make driving much safer. The cost of insurance will drop to a fraction for autodrive cars. The cost of taking a cab will plummet. Downtown parking will become cheaper, fuel costs will drop, and highway congestion will be a memory. Cars will take on a drawing room feel instead of everyone facing rigidly forward. Commuting time will morph into work time (boosting productivity) or fun time (improving our quality of life.)
Google's self-driving cars will test governments as they juggle the lobbying forces of the constituencies that will be displaced with the efficiency that the technology brings. The governments that resist change will be dooming their citizens to a Third- or Second World existence, while those that embrace change will enjoy economic advancement. The retraining of drivers for other jobs will be monumental. The Teamsters Union will fight this with their dying breaths.
A auto-drive car can be networked so that cars drive bumper to bumper. This drops fuel consumption since only the lead car needs to overcome the wind friction. The capacity of our highway system will jump in capacity by a factor of 20. Cars will be able to park blocks or miles away from congested areas while their passengers shop online for the cheapest parking locations. Your car will be a cell call away, and you will be able to text it for a pick-up. Kids will be able to go to school without mommy or daddy taxiing them. Cities without mass transportation can simply put extra cars on the road to pick up those without cars for point-to-point transportation. Long-haul trucks will pilot their cargos efficiently and cheaply. Local deliveries will be made in the same way. Perhaps there will be a kind of IP network of containers that can be routed like packets, but in the physical world.
The next few years will be very interesting as the winners and losers jockey for position in this new and efficient system. Bars will flourish as drunk driving becomes a thing of the past. The thousands of highway fatalities will finally cease. I can hardly wait.