UPDATE 2015/03/23: Elon Musk announced yesterday that all Tesla cars will receive a software update in about three months that will give them 'autopilot' capability. This is not truly autonomous cars but it is a self driving car that will operate on the highway. It is happening even faster than I thought it would...
If you make a living driving a car today. You won't in 10 years.
Google's new self driving vehicle prototype is cute, innocuous and undoubtably a very good thing. It is going to radically reduce pollution, stop (just completely stop) people dying in accidents, and reduce the cost of transport to nothing.
It's also going to cause social carnage. Driving a vehicle. It's one of the last reasonably well paid jobs that requires minimal skills. And you get a sense of freedom. This entire class of jobs is going to vanish, starting in 10 years. That includes taxi, courier, truck, bus, train, delivery, etc. You know: DRIVERS.
Above are some French taxi drivers protesting Uber. They're worried about a company coming in and lowering their wages. Wait until the other shoe drops and they realise that Uber in the future won't need them at all. Ouch.
Who is going to get rich off this? Google, obviously, and whatever companies license the technology and manufacture the vehicles. Google will probably follow the same model (though not actually paying companies to use it) they used with Android. They let anyone make self driving cars following their guidelines.
The manufacturers won't necessarily be current auto companies either. Samsung or LG are just as likely to make these things as Toyota or Ford. Because they will be radically different. You don't need crumple zones, engines, or air bags in an electric car that will never hit anything. It's just 4 wheels, lots of batteries, and an AC motor. And a computer of course.
We better start thinking about a basic income quick because that's a whole lot more dudes (most drivers are men) who will be coming onto the labour market all of a sudden.
So why is it still a good thing?
Because global warming. Cheaper solar power and replacing the entire vehicle fleet with robotic electric vehicles is going to be super efficient. Cars parked on the side of the road? That's just wasted capacity when they could be out there earning you money by working as a taxi. So cars will be much more environmentally friendly and we won't need as many.
Deaths. 1.2 million people died in accidents last year. That's a holocaust every 5 years. Guns don't kill people. People driving cars kill people. Driverless cars will never have an accident. The only way you'll get injured in a driverless car is if some drunk luddite in a Jaguar deliberately drives into you.
Transport is going to be cheap and convenient. A $5,000 vehicle that can be out on the street working 24 hours a day (with a few charging breaks) will pay itself off very quickly. And then ruthless price competition will mean companies like Uber charging a thin profit margin over the cost of the electricity to run them. Getting a taxi could end up cheaper than current public transport costs. And buses might just become a public good.
It is going to be a massive social change. Probably the biggest since the original Model T came onto the scene 102 years ago and we all went nuts for cars. When it happens it is going to happen really fast. The economics just make so much sense. Hello JohnnyCab!