It now seems inevitable that self-driving cars will become mainstream in the next 25 years. And Google is largely responsible. While other companies have comparable technology, Google has the visibility and cultural sway to push the notion effectively.
Today, the company revealed that it had built and would be “releasing” its own car prototypes. They look like a Pixar Animation Studios spin on the Fiat 500:
We’re now exploring what fully self-driving vehicles would look like by building some prototypes; they’ll be designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention. They won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal… because they don’t need them. Our software and sensors do all the work. The vehicles will be very basic—we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible—but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that’s an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.
We learned a week ago that to make autonomous vehicles truly work Google needs to build a 3D rendering of all the streets and routes it intends to drive. But let’s assume the company can eventually accomplish that on a national if not global scale.
Cut to twenty years from now: you call a car up on some “mobile device” using your voice. It soon shows up at your home or work. You get in and speak your destination, confirming the location on an in-car touchscreen map. Then the car takes you there as you read a book, work on your tablet or talk to a friend (in person or on the phone).
Oh, and the car is a rolling WiFi hotspot, too.
Beyond existing public transportation options, autonomous cars will likely make personal cars in urban centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia less and less necessary. The family of the future may have one car or no cars. That’s long been true in places like New York, Tokyo and London; but it could one day be true in Los Angeles or Phoenix. Municipal car sharing could emerge and closely resemble city bike sharing today.
Longer term there are implications for highway safety, carbon emissions and the automobile industry as a whole.
Millennials are not as interested in car ownership as previous generations. And if self-driving cars become a reality, the children of millennials will even less interested than their parents in owning a car.