Self-driving cars are currently being tested by the public in Singapore, and even safety-obsessed Volvo says it will start selling fully autonomous vehicles in five years. In other words, self-driving cars will probably be here sooner than you think.
Of course, the transition with be slow and bumpy, as the technology evolves from something more like souped-up cruise control to a fleet of entirely autonomous cars (which may or may not resemble what we know as cars today) that nearly completely eliminates the need for human drivers or private car ownership. Exact visions of that eventual self-driving future differ, but that future is coming, it's coming fast, and it's going to mean massive changes to our way of life.
What will those changes look like? There are no shortage of interesting and unexpected predictions out there from some of the country's best minds. I've rounded up a few with links for further reading if you're intrigued.
1. Cars will be the coffee shops of the future
When the occupants of a car don't actually have to drive it, what will they do instead? It's a question tackled by a recent report from agency Sparks & Honey and reported by Fast Company's Ben Schiller.
"In the 1990s, commentators started talking about the 'third place' after our homes and workplaces," he writes. "The report sees cars taking on a similar role. In turn, cars will go from being functional vehicles to get from A to B, to places where we have sex, take drugs, and educate ourselves." (OK, few to none of us do all those things in coffee shops, but you get the larger point).
2. Human drivers will be banned.
This vision of the future (no doubt an apocalyptic one for gear heads) comes from none other than Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. But don't fret driving fans, Musk doesn't see it happening anytime soon.
"In the distant future, I think it's probably going to be... people may outlaw driving cars, because it's too dangerous. You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine," he told a 2015 technology conference.
3. Goodbye, tickets and tolls.
Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase points out that there's a whole financial infrastructure the runs parallel to our current car-centric transportation system, and that infrastructure is going to have to change radically.
"The old way of collecting taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure will be gutted. With only 10 percent of the vehicles, and electric ones at that, we can kiss goodbye to gas taxes, parking revenues, driver's licenses, and traffic fines. We'll also lose 60 to 80 percent of the toll revenue (shared trips, fewer cars), car registrations, and inspections," she writes on Backchannel.
"This reality makes me feel joy -- because whatever replaces our current means of transportation taxation is bound to be better," Chase adds. What will take its place? Probably some new system of taxes based on energy efficiency, miles driven, and peak hours usage, but that's still highly speculative.
4. More sprawl?
While Chase is hoping that we'll use the transition to autonomous vehicles to focus on energy efficiency and sustainability. Others are betting people will be less interested in saving the planet, and more interested in buying a house with a bigger yard.
"Self-driving vehicles are also likely to help the suburbs most," predicts economist Tyler Cohen in Bloomberg. "One of the worst things about the suburbs is the commute to the city or to other parts of the suburbs. But what if you could read, text or watch TV - safely -- during that commuting time? What if you could tackle your day's work just as you do on a train or plane? Commuting would seem a lot less painful. As driverless vehicles evolve to accommodate work and leisure uses of the automobile space, pleasure will replace commuting stress." The Sparks & Honey report also predicts "reverse urbanization."
5. You won't have as many excuses to be late.
The transition to autonomous vehicles will have massive impacts on urban planning, our energy infrastructure, and the employment landscape (sorry, taxi and truck drivers), but it will also have smaller but still jarring effects on our day-to-day lives. "People will know when they leave, when they'll get where they're going. There will be few excuses for being late," points out CEO Geoff Nesnow on Startup Grind.
6. People will try to hack self-driving cars.
It's terrifying to think someone could hack your accounts and steal your personal information. It's even more terrifying to think someone could hack (and potentially disable) the brake pedal of the vehicle you're riding in. But "hacking of vehicles will be a serious issue," insists Nesnow.
Musk assures the public that smart people are already on the case. "I think [security] becomes really important when the cars are fully autonomous," he says. "When there isn't a steering wheel or a brake pedal or something, then it's really, really dangerous. Even as it is right now, where we spend most of our time on is that it's very difficult to do a multi-car hack."
7. We'll have an extra Grand Canyon's worth of space to fill.
Fewer private cars means fewer driveways, garages, parking spaces, and also less city space given up to highways and roads (as autonomous vehicles can use less pavement more efficiently). According to McKinsey that's going to free up a lot of space to play around with.
"McKinsey predicts that by 2050, we might need just 75 percent of the space we now reserve for parking our cars. Because this is America, that means we get back 5.7 billion square meters of space--enough to hold the Grand Canyon and then some," reports Wired. What will we do with it all? That's bound to be a matter of fierce debate.
8. That extra hour in the day? You might just get it.
Autonomous vehicles largely replacing private cars wouldn't just free up a ton of space, it would also free up an unbelievable amount of time. Not having to drive yourself places, "could free as much as 50 minutes a day for users, who will be able to spend traveling time working, relaxing, or accessing entertainment. The time saved by commuters every day might add up globally to a mind-blowing one billion hours--equivalent to twice the time it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza," claims McKinsey.
9. Driving will become a "retro hobby."
"My guess, long-term, is that there will be manual country driving, but it will be kind of like vinyl. It will be this cool thing you do as a retro [hobby] and people are into it," Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon told Business Insider.
"More people will participate in vehicle racing (cars, off road, motorcycles) to replace their emotional connection to driving," offers Busnow as a variation on this theme.
10. The sounds cars make will change radically.
Electric vehicles don't need to make a sound, but the government has mandated that manufacturers ensure they emit on so we can all hear them coming. What will that sound sound like? Possibly nothing like your clunking old Honda or purring new sports car, says audio designer Connor Moore whose job it is to dream up the car sound of the future.
"Think of the telephone's ring, once actual bells and clappers, shifting into an array of fully composed, harmonically appealing digital ring tones. Electric cars will make that same transition, including being branded by car model," explains The California Sunday Magazine, which interviewed Moore. "We will know that it's a Nissan Leaf; or an Uber self-driving car; or a Google, Apple, or Microsoft car before it even pulls into view."
How do you feel about the possibility of giving up the driver's wheel for good?