Mark your calendar: Five years from now, the long-awaited coming of self-driving cars to the consumer market could be upon us. So says Toyota, at least:
Toyota Motor Corp. plans to make some of its cars fully capable of self-driving on highways by around 2020, it said Tuesday, accelerating the rollout of its autonomous-drive technology and countering Silicon Valley rivals like Google Inc.
Toyota used the term “automated driving” to describe its new system, which allows vehicles to get on and off the highway and change lanes without driver input. That was a shift from its past approach, under which it preferred calling such technologies “advanced driver support.”
“We were afraid that by using the term ‘automated driving,’ people would misunderstand that humans are not involved at all,” said Masahiro Iwasaki, an engineer involved in the development of the technology.
The transportation revolution is closer than you think. Google’s test cars have already logged close to two million miles, with all reported accidents ruled the fault of human drivers. The real question is when, both technically and legally, consumers can actually start buying self-driving cars. If Toyota is right, the answer is quite soon; if 2020 doesn’t sound so soon to you, consider that the average highway construction project in the U.S. takes six years to be approved. In other words, you could be relaxing on your commute to work in your new autonomous car before your local government green lights that much-needed extra lane.
And when self-driving cars do hit the market—whether its 2020 or sometime soon thereafter—the knock-on effects we can expect to see will be more transformative than many realize. Take this article in Popular Mechanics, which details five ways that self-driving cars will “upend the market.” The article discusses how autonomous vehicles will affect things like parking and insurance, but it misses a few important consequences. In the first place, we will see a fall in car sales. Services like Uber paired with self-driving cars will together reduce the number of people who need to own cars, as well as the number of cars families need to own. Traffic and infrastructure will also change: Self-driving cars will enable more rational and efficient driving, speeding up the flow of traffic and reducing need for expensive new infrastructure constructions.
Autonomous vehicles will also lead to the privatization of a lot of public transportation. Why have a fleet of massively subsidized city busses when public or private vans can offer more convenient pick-ups and stops? And on longer range trips, there will be even fewer reasons for Americans outside the Northeast corridor to get on trains. Autonomous cars that let you work, sleep, and listen to music—not to mention taking you from point to point—perform much, much better than trains. Give those little suckers good Wi-Fi and comfy seats, and the age of passenger rail could come to a rapid end.
When you consider all these consequences, self-driving cars can’t come soon enough.