Move Over, the Robot's Driving

Eliminate fallible human drivers and robotic cars could safely tailgate their brethren, thus reducing traffic congestion by upping the density of vehicles per mile by an order of magnitude.

Or instead of wasting time with traffic lights, robo-vehicles could zip through gaps in the opposing traffic instead of waiting for lights to change.

Robotic pioneers, like Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, note that robotic vehicles could turn commutes into productive time. Imagine sitting back and catching up on work or relaxing while en route to a destination.

And robotic chauffeurs would be a godsend for anyone who can't drive, from geriatric grandparents to schoolchildren. Parents will trust robo-cars to take grade-schoolers to soccer practice and will sleep soundly knowing that their intoxicated teenagers are safe in the back seat while the family car drives them home.

As a forecaster, I am certain the foregoing examples will seem quaintly wrong in a few decades for the simple reason that a shift as profound as removing drivers from cars will change vastly more than the way we move around. The rise of robotic vehicles is as profound a change as the arrival of the horseless carriage 100 years ago and the impact on global society today is no less unpredictable.

Consider an urban fixture so ubiquitous that we never notice it unless it is missing -- the parking space. When people drive cars, parking lots must be close to the buildings they serve. But in a world of robot chauffeurs, Thrun notes that parking lots can be anywhere, because your car can drop you off and then drive off and go wait with its brethren a few miles away.

Imagine a shopping district free of curbside parking. How will planners redesign the space formerly taken up by parking lots? Perhaps we will dramatically reduce the need for lot space because robo-cars can pack themselves in more tightly, or more dramatically, in a world of robotic cars, fewer people will own cars at all, relying instead on fleets of shared vehicles.

With all the space we will save, I hope we'll reserve some of it as a refuge for a few old-fashioned 2007-era jalopies we can still drive all by ourselves, a welcome memory of a time when in our folly we thought we could be trusted with several thousand pounds of fuel-injected steel.

Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley. You can read more of his essays at www.saffo.com.

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