We were driving to visit family over the Easter weekend, and as a giant SUV started tailgating us -- high beams flashing impatiently because I couldn't quite move fast enough to the center lane -- I thought three things.

The first was something I can't print here. The second was, "Welcome to Massachusetts!"

But the third is the most relevant: "My God, I can't wait until we get self-driving cars."

There was a time when I loved driving. I got my driver's license within days of turning 16, and I'm sure I've driven at least a few million miles since then. I couldn't begin to rattle off all the different cars I've owned over the last couple of decades. 

But now, I'd absolutely love it if none of us ever had to sit behind the wheel again. 

I might be ahead of my time -- a report in The Wall Street Journal this weekend points out that while 40 years ago half of all 16 year-olds had driver's licenses, only 25 percent do now. They're just not interested.

Those stats are a leading indicator for the automobile industry.

New car sales are down. J.D. Power says members of Gen Z will purchase about 488,000 cars this year; down from 607,000 in 2004, when Millennials were the same age. That fear is part of why some manufacturers are diversifying. Take Ford's purchase of Spin, an electric scooter company, for $100 million last year.

Kids would rather take Uber. Or, perhaps, they'd rather travel in self-driving cars. 

I'm sure that one day, people will look back with horror at the idea that we once counted on human beings -- with human emotions, human reflexes, and human attention spans -- to pilot 4,000-pound hunks of metal at 70 miles an hour within inches of each other.

And that future is closer than it might seem. A few data points:

  • Today, Elon Musk is set to hold a presentation for Tesla investors on the company's progress in self-driving cars.
  • Uber is still working on the technology -- and it's reportedly far behind Waymo.
  • GM's Cruise division (the startup it bought for $1 billion in 2016) supposedly will have a fleet of 2,600 cars on the road this year that don't have steering wheels, accelerators or brake pedals.
  • By 2030, some analysts project there will be 20 million autonomous cars on U.S. highways, which by my math would add up to a bit under 10 percent. 

Maybe I'm conflating my hopes for the future with my objective predictions. Full transition to driverless cars will likely take decades; maybe I won't live to see it.

It will be here one day, though. And it will make driving in places like Massachusetts a lot less stressful

Published on: Apr 22, 2019
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