Self-driving cars have been among human fantasies since vehicles entered our lives. But we read a lot these days about how the dream is fast becoming reality and will revolutionize the transportation industry. According to estimates, there will be 10 million autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads by 2020, and human-driven cars will one day become extinct.
Some see the future of cars as what we’ve seen in the movie The Minority Report, where a stream of tight-packed, self-driven vehicles are autonomously navigating the winding streets of modern cities toward destinations designated by their passengers. Others, like Eric Spiegelman, the president of the Los Angeles Taxi Commission, envision a future twenty years from now where automated taxicabs have revolutionized urban commuting.
While both accounts are interesting, they do not precisely reflect what the future of transportation will look like, especially when we examine the evolution of autonomous vehicles in the greater context of other great technological developments that are coming to pass in tandem. For one thing, vehicles is not the only industry that is being transformed by the development of Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning. Pretty much everything is, and a quick look at the direction things are headed will show that we might not even need vehicles as much as we do today by the time our cars become fully autonomous.
First of all, physically demanding jobs are increasingly being taken from humans and passed on to robots that work tirelessly and never go home. Also some of the most sophisticated jobs such as facility monitoring and repairs will slowly be taken on by robots that leverage advanced machine learning technology to make decisions. The deployment of billions of internet connected sensors across buildings and cities will allow us to gather and analyze data about anything and everything, and many of the tasks that require physical presence today will be carried out remotely. With broadband internet and sophisticated messaging apps and cloud services becoming mainstream, people will become more inclined to work from home rather than drive to the office, and this is a trend that will be endorsed by big companies as well. All of these developments will slash considerably on transportation and will make us needless of necessarily owning a personal vehicle.
In fact, when you look at it closely, much more than just daily jobs will be done from homes. Today grocery is already being shopped by smart fridges and delivered by drones. I don’t know what to expect in twenty years, but I know that I won’t be heading out of my home to purchase staples.
Visiting doctors will also be a thing of the past by then. At present, Fitbits, connected drug infusion pumps and other health-tech are gathering and storing health-related data in huge amounts, creating possibilities that were inconceivable a few years back and enabling doctors to monitor and control patient health from hundreds and thousands of miles away. And we are only at the dawn of the health-tech revolution. Zoltan Istvan, the Transhumanist visionary, predicts that in ten years, half of Americans will have microchip implants that will alert their doctors about irregularities with their pulse or a drop in their body temperature. Innovations will not stop there. Don’t be surprised to hear about machine learning-powered microbot implant that will diagnose and treat all but the most critical maladies in their hosts.
Our perception of traveling will also transform dramatically. Already, inventions such as Oculus Rift are providing a glimpse of the potential that virtual reality can offer in the future. No longer will you be required to take a flight to get to your favorite vacation resort when VR sets can give you a totally immersive experience that is totally identical to its physical equivalent. Stephen Balkam explains how his recent experience with the Rift was so realistic that it took him a while to re-adjust with real life after removing the headset. In twenty years, the experience will become so real that I’ll be able to visit beaches, climb mountains, visit relatives (both alive and dead), all without setting foot outside my home.
I can go on and talk about events that are held remotely, virtual stadiums attended by millions of people worldwide, wars that are fought remotely, with robo-soldiers and drone vehicles taking the battlefield.
Is it starting to sound like The Matrix? There will be some similarities, but it won’t be so dystopian. The point is, with technology moving forward at such a fast pace, fewer tasks will require physical displacement and we will become less and less dependent on transportation to fulfill our goals. Self-driving cars will still have an important role to play in the transportation of goods, but personal vehicles will gradually become an exotic and luxury commodity. Some will still like to hit the highways in their own cars, but rather than being out of necessity, it will be for leisurely purposes and for the sake of reliving the memories of the good old days. But self-driving cars won’t offer much entertainment, and those dwindling few who still want to drive cars will prefer to try one of the rare specimens of manual cars that can give them the pleasure of total control, which they can take for a test drive on one of the limited number of roads where they’re still allowed.
Self-driving cars will have their time, but their time will be short-lived.