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Commentary By Aaron M. Renn

Self-Driving Cars Will Change More Than Just Traffic. Here's Why.

Cities Infrastructure & Transportation

With public transit, walking and cycling on offer in many big cities, the need for the car is in decline. Yet while the car is a bad fit for Manhattan, the vast majority of Americans live in places that were designed around the automobile. Trying to retrofit a suburb or sprawling Sun Belt city into a large-scale carless zone is a fool’s errand. The fact that L.A.’s transit ridership declined despite spending billions of dollars on new rail transit testifies to that. In most parts of the United States, the car will remain the dominant form of transportation.

“Driverless cars have the potential to radically transform society in ways we can’t yet imagine.”

But that doesn’t mean change isn’t on the way. In particular, driverless cars have the potential to radically transform society in ways we can’t yet imagine. While we can’t predict exactly what that future holds, it’s easy to imagine ways this technology could cause radical upheaval in our society.

For instance: about 4 million Americans work as truck drivers. If some large percentage of those jobs went away, this would mean another middle-class occupation had been undermined by technology. This is easy enough to imagine, but what may be more disruptive are follow-on effects.

Truck drivers do much more than drive. The UPS driver rings your buzzer and hands the package to you, for example. Drivers of soda delivery trucks may also stock the product on the shelves. But if the driver isn’t needed to actually drive the truck, the incentive to automate the rest is so high that it isn’t hard to imagine that this work is redefined as well. Volvo is already working on robots that might eliminate garbage truck drivers.

Instead of a mail slot, in the future maybe every house has a standardized “package slot” with integrated security that enables the driverless truck fulfilling your Amazon order to automatically deposit the package into a secure location on your property. The entire idea of “delivery” might be redefined. If there’s no labor cost in delivery thanks to fully automated warehouses and vehicles, we might start taking a “just in time” mindset to our homes instead of buying things such as groceries once a week. Services such as Amazon’s Prime Now, which will deliver to your house in an hour, are a step in this direction.

The locus of power in the automobile industry might also shift from Detroit to Silicon Valley. In the case of music, newspapers and other industries where digitization has already shifted power in that direction, we’ve seen vast industrial disruption. Massive wealth has accrued to a handful of insiders in technology, as tech advances have undermined many formerly middle-class occupations. The auto business is one of the major bastions of good-paying jobs that remain.

Keep in mind that one reason President Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler is because more than 1 million jobs in the United States are linked to the auto industry. Yet the tech industry does most of its manufacturing outside the country. Apple employs 700,000 people offshore (including subcontractors), compared with only 43,000 people in the United States. If Silicon Valley wins the driverless car industry, we may see this shift accelerate.

Manufacturing jobs are only part of this change. Traditionally, auto manufacturers were required to sell through independent dealers. Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer, is already undermining the state franchise laws the way Uber has disrupted the cab business, by selling through company-owned showrooms. Driverless cars could take this a step further. Rather than requiring individual purchases, large fleet owners might make them available to subscribers on an on-demand basis, much like Zipcar.

This could basically put car dealers out of business. Car dealers are a powerful political force in many states and localities – hence those franchise laws. If they go away, the dynamics of local politics might even change. The auto insurance business as we know it would also go away, with potentially similar effects in supposedly unrelated areas.

That’s just a start. Much of modern policing is organized around traffic patrols. Those are much less necessary when there are no cars. What is the local suburban cop who normally staffs a speed trap supposed to do? And what happens to the budget of the town when it no longer collects speeding and parking ticket revenues or court fees for traffic tickets? It might be harder for police to interdict drugs, for example, because traffic violations won’t occur and thus the drugs in cars will not be found.

The list of potential downstream effects is limitless. It is these second- and third-order upheavals – politics, policing, etc. – where the driverless car may create profound societal change far beyond the obvious.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post