Investor engines are revving, media buzz is at fever pitch, but society is not ready
Wired recently posted an astonishing infographic detailing the “top 263 companies” working on autonomous cars. (Just the “top” ones, remember.) In addition to carmakers, the group includes specialists in sensors, navigation systems, safety gear, mapping and other esoterica. Nonetheless, the list underlines what you probably already knew: Silicon Valley’s chattering classes have gone gaga over self-driving cars. They see a transportation revolution ahead, one that will change the daily lives of everyone in the known universe. And of course, they imagine heaping Smaug-sized piles of treasure.
No question, a lot of super-smart Stanford and Berkeley MBAs and engineers are betting that in the not-too-distant future, we’re all going to be driven by robo-chauffeurs. The promised benefits are massive: no more traffic accidents; no more speeding tickets; the costs of transporting goods will fall; we will have less need for body shops, emergency rooms, traffic school, personal injury lawyers, the DMV and the California Highway Patrol. Instead of guzzling coffee to keep alert, people will sip for distraction in sleek electric Waymos and Teslas and Applemobiles, reading social media, reviewing email or simply napping. Morgan Stanley has estimated that there could be more than $500 billion from productivity gains alone, given that Americans spend 75 billion hours a year driving. We’ll be productive, safe, relaxed and happy, free to count our enormous profits from investing in autonomous driving shares.
At least, that’s the theory. But as Yogi Berra once said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” He had it right. The potential is vast, but autonomous cars also would disrupt the structure of American society in profound ways. People will push back, and push back hard.