Self-Driving Cars - Second Level Changes
Obviously self-driving cars are going to change the world. That's not what this post is about, at least, not entirely. Over the last few years, self-driving cars have become commonplace in the news. Innumerable articles have been written with predictions on how the world will change: (1) thousands of lives will be saved; (2) the taxi and trucking industries will become fully automated with countless people losing their jobs; (3) time that was once wasted in daily commutes can now be used productively; etc.
I call these "first-level changes." First-level changes are direct consequences of fully autonomous vehicles, or Level 5 autonomy. Before we go further, below is a refresher on the levels of autonomy set by SAE International (and adopted by the NHTSA).
What I find far more interesting are what I call "second-level changes." Second-level changes are those that indirectly impact our society. Second-level changes are sometimes counterintuitive or even bizarre. That's what makes them far more interesting. We need smart people (like you, dear reader) to think about these indirect changes brought about by Level 5 self-driving cars. Otherwise we might be blindsided (I couldn't resist) by serious problems in the near future.
Here is a prime example of a second-level change: self-driving cars will make organ shortages even worse. According to the Slate article authored by Ian Adams and Anne Hobson:
It’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can contribute transplants, among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads (a number that, after years of falling mortality rates, has recently been trending upward). Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations comes from the victim of a vehicular accident. That’s why departments of motor vehicles ask drivers whether they want to be donors.
It’s not difficult to do the math on how driverless cars could change the equation. An estimated 94 percent of motor-vehicle accidents involve some kind of a driver error. As the number of vehicles with human operators falls, so too will the preventable fatalities. In June, Christopher A. Hart, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said, “Driverless cars could save many if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways.” Even if self-driving cars only realize a fraction of their projected safety benefits, a decline in the number of available organs could begin as soon as the first wave of autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles hits the road—threatening to compound our nation’s already serious shortages.
Of course, we would expect an overall net positive in lives saved from traffic accidents than those lost due to unvailability of organ donors. But it's still a serious consequence of self-driving cars. And its probably one that many haven't thought about.
Regional airlines go out of business
Ok, maybe regional airlines don't completely fold. But think about this: why would you fly to a city 6 or 7 hours away when you could hop in your Level 5 self-driving car at around midnight and wakeup in the destination city? Think about avoiding the lines, stress, hassle, TSA pat-downs, flight cancellations, uncomfortable seats, pricey airport food, the guy seated next to you that sneezes in your face while your sleeping.
All that stuff.
Self-driving cars stand to impact areas of the world that lack legitimate public transportation options. So it's not unreasonable to expect decline in regional air travel. Especially when you begin to think about the changes in vehicle form factor due to Level 5 autonomy.
Vehicle design will change dramatically. There will be more emphasis on comfort and active features for passengers' entertainment or productivity. And this doesn't even take into consideration potential changes in speed limits for Level 5 self-driving cars. Travel times may be reduced considerably if Level 5 self-driving cars are permitted to travel at high speeds. This only makes regional travel via self-driving cars more attractive.
Alcohol consumption rises
Great for bars and restaurants, even better for breweries and distillers. Maybe bad for rates of liver and kidney disease?
Yes, this is pure speculation. But common sense tells me patrons will be more likely to order more drinks at dinner or while watching the game somewhere when they don't have to drive. Yes, there are people that drive while intoxicated. But there are a lot more that don't. To give you an idea, Morgan Stanley estimates alcohol markets could receive an additional $98 billion because of self-driving cars.
But what about Uber, Lyft and taxis? Why would self-driving cars make much of a difference if ride services are already here? Because, similar to the point on regional travel, there are many more places in the world that don't have access (or at least convenient access) to Uber/Lyft/taxis than places that do.
For rural areas and even some smaller cities, many people do not use ride-sharing services or taxis. They either (a) aren't available at all or (b) are so inconvenient due to price or limited availability that the drawbacks outweigh their usefullness.
To continue my rampant speculation, this increase in alcohol consumption could potentially cause more public health problems across the board. At a minimum, it would seem that when more people are drinking, whatever existing public health problems associated with alcohol could increase.
But if you're drinking enough that its unhealthy, then whether self-driving cars revolutionize the world isn't likely to change that. So perhaps not. The same logic probably applies to the idea that productivity at work could decrease. If you drink enough that it negatively affects your job, then self-driving cars probably aren't going to change your behavior one way or the other.
Third Level Changes
Just kidding, I'm not going there.
My whole motivation for this post is to draw attention to how much society will change in unforeseeen ways by this technology. If at least one person starts thinking this way about self-driving cars, it'll have been worth it.