Overlooked societal impacts of autonomous cars


Self-driving vehicle manufacturers say their cars will change the world. They’re right, but not for the reasons they think. Autonomous driving seems like a convenient technology on paper, but it could have significant societal impacts that we’re not prepared to deal with in practice.

Let’s discuss how these unintended consequences – both good and bad – might play out in a self-driving future.

1. Vehicle Ownership

The most immediate effect of widespread autonomous driving would likely be a drop in vehicle ownership. With a more affordable and convenient option available on command, fewer people may want to spend more money and effort maintaining their older cars. Some auto industry analysts believe we will almost exclusively ride in shared autonomous cars by 2030.

Some people might be happy to discard their vehicles for autonomous riding, especially in urban centers where everything is close by (more on that later). However, many questions remain about whether a shared riding system would work in rural, sparsely populated areas. How would their daily lives change? How long would they have to wait for driverless cars to pick them up?

The matter of personal choice and property rights also raises concerns about the widespread integration of autonomous vehicles. We can’t force people to give up their gas-powered cars. Car ownership is vital for millions of people’s livelihoods and remains a powerful status symbol. A systematic integration plan might work, but attempting such a drastic change as early as 2030 could prove disastrous.

2. Urban Infrastructure

Cars have taken over cities, leaving little room for cyclists and pedestrians. That could change if autonomous vehicles become mainstream. Since driverless cars operate with more precision and predictability, we can adjust our urban infrastructure for pedestrian convenience, and sustainable transportation methods can take hold in cities.

Streets would be narrower, stoplights and traffic signs would largely disappear, and intersections would be safer to cross. Parking lots and garages would also be obsolete, making room for more socially influential structures like businesses, schools, and recreational facilities.

A new urban layout would be a welcome change from the hectic, unsafe conditions we have created in cities worldwide. Car-related casualties would decrease, while the standard of living would greatly improve.

3. Auto Insurance

Autonomous vehicles would jeopardize the entire auto insurance industry, for better or worse. A drop in auto accidents and injuries would largely negate the need for auto insurance, cutting costs and putting many companies out of business. Additionally, they can’t hold a driver liable if a self-driving car accident occurs.

In a driverless world, the insurance companies that avoid bankruptcy would likely hold the manufacturer liable for accidents. Individuals would no longer need car insurance, but self-driving car companies would take their place.

4. New Business Models

Shared riding services wouldn’t be the only new autonomous car business. Retailers would convert self-driving trucks and vans to mobile stores and offices, bringing products straight to the customer. The standard in-person buying experience we know today would become largely obsolete.

Many food and retail businesses have introduced mobile services like contactless delivery and curbside pickup since COVID-19 began, so a fully mobile business model doesn’t seem that farfetched. Traffic would consist primarily of autonomous commercial vehicles delivering food, clothes, and other essentials to entire neighborhoods, almost like ongoing mail service.

5. Unemployment

While mobile businesses might be more convenient for the customer, they wouldn’t be as kind to the workforce. People who currently earn a living from driving commercial vehicles would lose their jobs. The United States’ trucking industry employs almost 8 million people alone, while many other industries rely on commercial drivers for their day-to-day operations.

Delivery, taxi, and public transportation workers would be out of work. Their supervisors and trainers would also get kicked to the curb. Added together, the job losses would exceed Great Recession-era levels. Since these professions have specific skillsets, hiring and training the workers for new jobs would be a significant challenge.

6. Living Arrangements

Self-driving cars would change millions of people’s daily commutes. They would no longer have to drive to/from work or run errands, giving them more free time. Real estate analysts believe this change would lead people to move to more secluded areas and accept longer riding commutes. Instead of stressing out behind the wheel, they could eat, sleep, and relax during riding services.

On the other hand, new city structures would also entice some people to move into urban areas. The demographics and attitudes of our cities could drastically change if autonomous vehicles take over. Contrary to past trends, older people might resettle in cities for easier transportation and localized amenities, while younger people relocate to suburbs and rural areas for extra space.

7. Cybersecurity

Computers and artificial intelligence control self-driving cars, which exposes them to cyber threats and puts vehicle security at risk. A capable cybercriminal could hack a vehicle and find a person or company’s private information. They could even take control of the car’s activity and make it crash on purpose if they so desire.

Autonomous cars would also have widespread networks to communicate with other vehicles on the road. If a hacker breached one of these networks, thousands of vehicles would be exposed, and traffic might suddenly halt.

Artificial intelligence could fix these cyber threats as it becomes more knowledgeable, but for now, self-driving cars have some major security vulnerabilities that need addressing.

8. Organ Donations

Self-driving vehicles would cause a sharp decline in fatal car accidents, which should be a positive change. However, about 13% of organ donations come from these accidents. Many sick and dying people would lose the life-saving organs they need.

A lack of organs is already an issue, as 20 people die daily waiting for organs in the United States alone. If autonomous cars become our primary transportation method, this problem could multiply quickly.

Stem cell research and lab-grown human organs could solve this problem, but organ shortages remain a problem, and autonomous vehicles would only make it worse. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, choosing between fatal accidents and organ donation shortcomings.

9. Environmental Impacts

On the surface, autonomous driving seems like an eco-friendly technology. It would reduce emissions and fossil fuel consumption in the short term, but long-term predictions are all over. Estimates range from an 87% decrease to a 217% increase in fuel demand.

The primary concern about autonomous vehicles is that people will overindulge in riding services. Since they don’t have to pay for gas and maintenance, they would ride the shared vehicles longer and farther, creating traffic congestion and over-expending energy from EV power grids.

We could solve this problem by implementing car-pooling systems and revamping public transportation. Instead of having hundreds of independent ride-sharing companies, we can save energy by putting fewer vehicles on the road and grouping passengers with more efficient commute options.

10. Ethical Dilemmas

Perhaps the gravest impact of autonomous vehicles would be the appearance of new ethical dilemmas. They might be safer than humans, but they can still get into accidents. An autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018, which resulted in a settlement between the company and the victim’s family.

This tragedy raises many questions about the new road hierarchy autonomous vehicles would create. Would human drivers be allowed on the roads with self-driving cars? If so, how would humans interact with them? How would our road designs and traffic laws change? Some studies predict that the most expensive and technologically advanced cars would segregate older models and control traffic flow.

Questions also remain about autonomous vehicle safety. Identifying traffic hazards is just one part of preventing accidents. Can a self-driving car predict the behavior of other drivers and pedestrians as an accident plays out? For example, if given a choice between hitting a stopped car or swerving into another car, what would the self-driving vehicle do?

Surveys show that most people are still uncomfortable with letting robots make judgment calls. Driver support technology is one thing, but we’re not quite ready to give full driving power to autonomous vehicles. The moral problems described above are best left to humans.

Autonomous Cars Have a Long Way to Go

Self-driving technology has made significant progress in the 21st century, but we’ve underestimated how much it might affect our way of life. We’ve also been too ambitious about autonomous vehicle capabilities. Artificial intelligence has many challenges to overcome before we can trust it to handle the complexities of driving.

In the meantime, we must weigh the positive and negative societal impacts and determine whether self-driving cars belong in our future world. The benefits might outweigh the risks on paper, but that doesn’t guarantee their success. We must be fully prepared to face all potential consequences of autonomous vehicle integration.