Let’s Drive a Lot More

In The Economist, Schumpeter extols the benefits of driverless cars:

When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopaedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too. When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise. When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce. The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived. And so on.

The column, however, misses a key point. If the technology gets good enough, then it will be possible for cars to be driven at higher speeds and much closer together. I imagine we’ll see ‘flocks’ of cars on motorways and freeways – moving very quickly and in tight formation, with the odd few peeling off the side at each exit.

Combine this with vehicle interiors that look quite different – a commuter would want a work station that converted into a flat bed like an airline’s business class seat – and the feasible length of journeys could become very long indeed.

I’d guess that people might be prepared to double the time they spend on their journey to work and would be able to go much further in that time (higher speeds + less congestion). Occasional overnight trips – to the holiday home in the country – would become feasible as well if you had your very own sleeper service. At the same time, other forms of transport – trains in particular – would become significantly less attractive.

And that makes the driverless car a potentially hugely important medium-term disruptor for the energy sector, for climate change, and for urban planning. I don’t think many people have woken up to this yet.