Driverless Cars Are Getting Big. Will Driving Go The Way Of Horseback Riding?

January 1st will be a big day for UK road transportation. That’s when self-driving cars will be allowed on public roads there. And the UK is not alone in ceding the roads to unpiloted cars: Nissan is testing self-driving cars on Japan’s roads, and about a hundred cars without drivers are soon to navigate the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden. In the USA Google’s self-driving experimental cars are legal in three states, and legislation is pending in many others.

Egged on by German, French and Italian automakers, who are champing at the bit to get the technology out of the lab and into their showrooms,  the UN Convention on Road Traffic agreed to back driverless cars a few months ago. The automakers foresee big business.

Back in the UK Business Secretary Vince Cable called self-driving cars a “transformational technology” that will open up “new opportunities for our economy and society.”

Just what are these opportunities? Certainly there will be advantages for drivers who find it inconvenient or impossible to operate cars:

  • Disabled people who are not able to drive, including the blind, will be able to enjoy the convenience of being able to get anywhere by themselves
  • Tired commuters can snooze on the way home
  • Having a few drinks at a bar will not mean choosing between begging a lift home and being a public menace
  • People who are simply bad drivers – and they do exist – can give us all a break and let the computer do the driving

But will the cars really transform the economy? Perhaps, but not in the way that Vince Cable envisions. One suspects that those “new opportunities” will involve getting rid of the job description of “driver.” Some of the people who will no longer be earning paychecks (in the long run, at least):

  • Taxi and limousine drivers
  • Disabled van drivers
  • Pizza and takeout delivery people – a mobile app will tell you when your 12-inch Supreme is parked outside
  • Anyone driving short-haul transport: airport baggage cars and passenger movers

When Henry Ford devised a way to mass-produce the automobile, it was indeed a transformational technology that created new industries and opportunities for employment: gas stations, auto repair shops, motels. But these industries won’t see a big boost in income when driving goes out of style.

So what will happen when driving becomes an optional pastime, like horseback riding? Will there still be work for professional drivers?

Ask your local blacksmith.