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Driverless cars will change everything

‘If you think personal cars will survive as status symbols, remember horses were once status symbols’

Your next car might drive itself. “The technology is essentially here,” Barack Obama told Wired magazine this month. Robin Chase, the transportation entrepreneur who co-founded Zipcar, reckons driverless cars are “three-and-a-quarter years away”. Yet we have barely begun to think about how they will revolutionise our lives, revamp our cities — and destroy tens of millions of jobs.

After years of trials on city streets, driverless vehicles are now nearing the live phase. Last month, a driverless bus began carrying passengers through Lyon, France. Most in the automobile industry think self-driving vehicles will be on the road by 2020 or before, says Richard Holman, head of foresight and trends at General Motors.

Driverless cars will initially coexist with human-driven cars. But the first places where they will become dominant are dense urban areas — precisely the spots most damaged by the automobile age. This is “a chance to have a do-over for cities,” Chase told this month’s Autonomy conference in Paris. Many advanced cities are already reducing the role of cars. Driverless cars will hasten that process.

Cities don’t want everyone to own their own driverless car. That would prolong congestion, and isn’t necessary anyway. A driverless car is the perfect cheap taxi — it can drop you at work, and then go off to collect somebody else. If you still insist on driving your own car, cities will probably charge you for the privilege: motoring will become a luxury, like owning and flying your own plane. Driverless cars could allow cities to cut vehicle numbers by about 90 per cent while transporting the same number of people. They will bring us enormous benefits:

• Driverless cars will reduce accidents by around 90 per cent, predicts Pascal Demurger, director-general of French insurer MAIF. That’s big — the annual death toll on the world’s roads is about 1.2 million a year, or double the toll from armed conflict and homicides combined.

• Pollution and carbon emissions will drop, because urban driverless cars will be electric.

• The old, the disabled and teenagers will suddenly gain mobility.

• People will save fortunes by ditching their cars. The average cost of owning a car in Europe is about €6,000 a year, says Chase. If you think personal cars will survive as status symbols, remember that horses were once status symbols.

• Driverless cars will hardly ever need to park, and certainly not in city centres. Cities can therefore convert parking spaces — where many cars now sit for the vast majority of their lives — into bike lanes or parks.

• Congestion will diminish, as driverless cars can drive in dense packs, won’t get lost and won’t have to circle around looking for parking.

• Police will no longer pull over black drivers — or indeed any drivers.

• Once driverless cars spread beyond urban centres, the tedium of commutes will go. “You can use your car for eating, working, sleeping, kissing,” Carlo Ratti, head of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, told the Autonomy conference.

On the other hand, driverless cars will bring catastrophe. The best thing about the automobile age was that it employed tens of millions of people to make, market, insure and drive vehicles. Over the next 20 years, the mostly low-skilled men who now drive trucks, taxis and buses will see their jobs decimated. Instead of taxi drivers setting Uber cars on fire, we could see taxi and Uber drivers get together to set driverless cars on fire. If you thought Donald Trump was bad, wait for the next wave of male losers from modernity.

Or think of insurers, many of whom now get about half their revenues from automobile insurance. Warren Buffett, whose company Berkshire Hathaway owns the auto insurers Geico, says that anything that sharply reduces traffic accidents “would be wonderful. But we would not be holding a party at our insurance company.” Demurger muses, “We could almost become an insurer without insurance.” Governments and cities, too, will lose revenues from parking, speeding fines and petrol taxes.

Carmakers are especially scared. The few cars of the future might be made by tech companies such as Apple, Baidu and Google. Imagine the impact on Germany, where the automotive sector is the largest industry.

There may be a clash ahead between mostly European car companies and American tech companies. The carmakers want people to keep buying and driving their own cars, albeit with new technological aids. By contrast, the tech companies will lobby governments to favour driverless cars.

Dramatic change is coming, but governments have barely begun thinking about it. Obama is a rare politician even to have mentioned self-driving cars. Only 6 per cent of the biggest US cities have factored them into their long-term planning. Driverless cars could arrive by 2020, but most mayors and transport ministers are preoccupied with next week.

A decade ago hardly anyone saw the smartphone coming. It has brought an epidemic of mass addiction. Let’s hope we do a better job of handling the driverless car.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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