What Happens If Self-Driving Cars Become a Reality?

This is a thought experiment, and perhaps a glimpse into the future. The question I start with is, “What happens if self-driving cars become a reality?” I note that first order effects (like, Now I can eat breakfast in the car because I don’t have to hold the steering wheel anymore) are the easiest to see, and with each step out (Does my breakfast change? How does that effect egg farmers?), the results get easier and easier to get wrong.

I also note that we may never see true self-driving cars. Self-driving cars are starting to feel like flying cars, in that they are just around the corner, but years later have yet to arrive.

Baseline Assumptions

First, a few baseline assumptions in this scenario:

  • Self-driving” means cars can drive themselves without human control, either local or remote1. Also, that they can drive in the full range of conditions and situations that prudent human drivers can (and do) today. So it’s not going to take you off-roading, but snow on the highway or missing lane lines through a construction zone are not a problem.
  • Cars are going to be electric powered. This will be driven by (among other things) the need to safely “refuel” the car without requiring a human on-site.
  • People are going to continue to go to the same places (work, school, shopping, etc.) in roughly the same amount as today (at least in the beginning).
  • These self-driving cars will be roughly comparable with the cost to current cars; i.e. anyone who can currently afford a car today would be able to afford a future self-driving car.
  • Renting a self-driving car will be cheaper than getting a taxi today, as there is no human behind the wheel to pay.

Rent vs Own

The question of whether we will rent or own these new cars has huge implications for those who are proposing to own the rental fleets (like Uber), but probably don’t change the may of the outcomes below. I’m going to (mostly) punt on the question.

Scenario 1: Driving the Kids to School

One of the first interesting scenarios is getting the kids to school. Today, either Mom (or Dad) drives them, or they take a school bus, or they walk. However, once you have a self-driving car, Mom doesn’t need to do more than buckle the kid into the car and sent it on its way. Also, as Mom is not longer tied to dropping off the kids, the kids can now go to school further from home or (Mom’s) work; really any school within about an hour has become a candidate. There is also one less thing to encourage sibling to attend the same school, as they can each take their own car to their respective school.

Guess 1: There will develop a demand for “kid pods”: small, self-driving cars that are sized to carry a single child and his school backpack.

One question that arises is, What to do with the kid’s cars while they’re in school? Do the elementary schools build a parking lot, like my high school had? Do you send the cars home? Do you send them away to another off-site parking lot, or on an all day drive?

Guess 2: Parking “kid pods” will quickly become a policy issue for school boards.

Scenario 2: Regular Commute

The most reliable of trips for most people are their trips to and from work. Almost universally, it is from a one set location (home) to another (the office) at predicable times.

I’m writing this in the shadow of Covid, and so Work From Home (WFH) has become almost universal in certain industries. Time will tell whether WFH becomes a norm or these past two years have been an aberration. But regardless, in-person work is required in many sectors, and many WFH organizations are pushing for a hybrid arrangement that would see workers returns to the office several days a week. In short, I don’t think that this Covid-era has killed the commute. However, it has become part of the work conversation to discuss non-traditional arraignments (like WFH, even for part of the week) or adjusted hours. Where this intersects with self-driving cars, I expect many couples would request hours offset from each other so they could use the same car to commute, one after the other, and I suspect bosses have become increasingly open to considering this.

As well, if you are commuting in a rental car (rather than one you own), I expect that the further you get from the traditional 8 to 5 start and end times, the cheaper the rental rates will be (due to lower demand).

Guess 3: Bosses will get more requests for slightly offset start and end times, to arraign commuting.

Like with kids delivered to school by self-driving cars, a question arises of what to do during the workday with your self-driving car. “Regular” parking remains an option, but is not free in many downtowns. You could send it to park elsewhere: perhaps a lot outside of the downtown core or even to your house. Or you could send it on a trip: circling downtown or on a long loop away and back in time to take you home.

Guess 4: Cities will pass “anti-cruising” laws to keep self-driving cars from endlessly circling the block, sometimes for hours, waiting for their passengers.

Guess 5: Downtown rush hour traffic will get worse, as many cars will make two trips (in and out) to the downtown core at each end of the workday, either to pick up a second passenger for their own trip to work, or to park or loop outside the downtown core.

Scenario 3: “Work from Commute”

Since you don’t have to be the one driving, could you “work from home” during your commute? Perhaps this would require re-configuring your car from one with four seats to a single seat and a flat work surface, but you don’t need a steering wheel so there isn’t much (beyond imagination) keeping this from happening.

Guess 6: Self-driving cars will be reconfigured inside to allow other uses, such as being a mobile office.

Once you have a “mobile office” aka a “work from commuting car”, what are the chances you could convince your boss to count your time traveling (but working) as part of your 8 hour work shift, effectively reducing how long you’re gone from the house? Or maybe you just work half days in the office, and count your commuting time without asking your boss.

But taken (literally) a step further, once you have a “working commute”, how long could your commute reasonably be? Two or three hours? At that point, you could still work half days in the office, with the other half from “at home”, and still not be adding anything to your 8 hour day.

Now you have access to housing far beyond the urban core (up to 300 km/200 miles away?), allowing you to live in rural areas or small towns, presumably with their lower housing costs, while still having many of the amenities of urban life (after all, you drive to the “big city” every day.)

Guess 7: Some commuters will be able to live considerably further from the office than today, while still working half days in the office. This may prove the salvation of some rural areas and small towns.

Scenario 4: Business Trips

Eventually, some boss is going to look at someone’s two to four hour commute, and ask them if they’re willing to drive the other way to do a meeting an another office or a partner’s location. What today would require dedicating three (or more) days and a couple of flights can be done as “just another day in the office”. Or perhaps a boss will work like this, managing two different locations, in cities up to 8 hours apart, while living halfway between them.

Someone in the accounting department will hear rumour of this, and wonder how much you can push this. I think the next leap would be overnight trips: hop in the car after supper and arrive in the new office by mid-morning would give you a range of about 12 or so hours. At this point, your car would need someplace for you to sleep, whether a “proper” bed or a reclining chair, and possibly a toilet or at least a modern take on a slop pail. If the person is high enough up, they might also be able to demand a shower and a sink to get ready at. The space may be able to be reconfigurable, so you don’t need 4+ rooms. If you add a kitchen, you would basically have a studio apartment (on wheels!) or a motorhome.

Now you have access to a huge chunk of the continent as basically “another day in the office”! For example:

  • from Calgary, you could reach Vancouver (10 1/2 hours), Edmonton (3 hours), Winnipeg (14 hours), and Salt Lake City (13 hours);
  • from Grande Prairie, Alberta, you could reach Yellowknife, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Great Falls MT, and Vancouver;
  • from Chicago, you could reach New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Dallas in a pinch, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Guess 8: If another group doesn’t first, business travellers will create a demand for “motorhome” versions of the self-driving car.

Guess 9: The relative ease of travel (i.e. you no longer have to sit behind the wheel) will see increasing numbers of managers and salesmen managing far flung territories.

Scenario 5: Life on the Road

So at this point in our thought experiment, we now have self driving motorhomes. New units will likely be as expensive as today’s motorhomes: starting at $50,000, but rising to $300- or $400,000. Initially this will limit the market: business executives and traveling salesman (often corporate bought), and permanent RV-ers. But given a few years, as sales volumes rise and a used market develops, the entry price may drop.

At the low end of the housing market, buying a (self-driving) motorhome will also become increasing appealing; after all, the top end (~$400,000) for a (new) motorhome is still only the average house prices in many of the more “reasonable” housing markets, to say nothing of the more expensive ones.

Guess 10: The relative low cost of self-driving motorohomes, when compared with other forms of housing in major centers, will lead to a whole class of “mobile home dwellers,” a landless and mobile class.

What is less clear is how society as a whole will respond to a large, functionally mobile class (let’s call them The Travellers). There are certain people that do this today (living out of an RV or a boat), but the change here is the sheer scale of it. Much of today’s society has the implicit assumption that you have an physical (civil) address that is relatively stable. Perhaps history will be our guide, and we can look at how the Roma (aka the Gypsies) or the Irish Travellers have been treated, but neither of those are particularly heartwarming examples, and neither of them had a strong presence in North America.

Guess 11: Having a large, landless, travelling class of people will change society far more than self-driving cars do directly. How, I’m less sure, so let me ask some questions:

  • How do you get mail? Today, your default mailing address is your physical (civil) address. Will a PO box be enough?
  • How do you establish (or un-establish) or prove tax residency when you’re working on the move? Today, many US states expect you to file and pay state level income tax if you do any work in their state, but how do they go about proving you were in their state when there are no hotel receipts or plane tickets to tie you somewhere for the night? I mean, they don’t currently try and claim for work you do as fly over the state….
  • Do border crossing change when from the outside someone (in a self-driving motorhome) going on vacation and someone working from their RV look much alike?
  • How do you prove residency for immigration or healthcare or for in-state tuition? All of these require that you spend a certain number of days within the jurisdiction over years of time.
  • How do you establish residency in a local neighboorhood to allow your kids to attend the local school?
  • When it is census time, where do you get counted?
  • How do you establish enough ties to a local riding (or distrcit) to be allowed to vote there? Today, I can show up with my driver’s license as proof that I live in the district, so will this get outsourced to whoever prints up your driver’s license? Currently, if you’re American and you move out of the county, you continue to vote in the last district you lived in (inside the US); will this be extended to Travellers, and you’ll vote at your last physical address? What happens when you’re the child of Travellers, and have never had a “physical address”?
  • What would you put on your security clearance (or immigration) forms when it asks you for your address for the last five years? Or your mortgage application?
  • How does a city change when a huge number of their citizens are landless? Do cities build parking spaces for the Travellers, and try and attract them? Or do they ignore them, and leave them shut out of the political process?
  • What happens to the “landed” and their communities? Do land-based communities become a new form of a gated community?
  • On a personal level, who stops in to check on your “apartment,” to discover that you died in front of the TV, when you never stop anywhere longer than it takes to refuel? Will your motorhome keep driving, potentially for years, until your bank account no longer has the funds for the next refueling?


First order effects are easy enough to guess at, but our society is complex and varied, and how the “end game” of self-driving cars plays out could result in a fundamentally different society than the one we assume now.

  1. Update, February 22, 2024: When I wrote this originally, I was imagining you having to hire a driver to either sit in the car with you or sit in a window-less room somewhere nearby driving your car around like it’s some sort of video game. The hiccup to both these is they add a substantial operating cost to driving, and my predictions that follow are based on the idea of the vehicle being very cheap to actually operate. However, I have since been reminded of the idea of artificial artificial intelligence, that is to say a computer (“AI”) that operates by outsourcing the thinking parts to a human elsewhere (and thus is a “fake AI”). If that elsewhere is somewhere where local wages are very cheap and latency between there and your car isn’t too bad, maybe the assumed economics still hold. The advantage of artificial artificial intelligence is it allows you to launch your service without having to deal with every edge case, instead allowing your backroom operators to solve such problems on the fly. 

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