The world is still enamoured with the idea of autonomous vehicles despite some hiccups in their (very) public testing and the fact that some humans, who feel they are the early adopters, haven’t quite figured out what they should or shouldn’t be doing with the semi-autonomous systems available in some cars.
If the mature car markets do move to fully autonomous cars, then more people will be replacing driving with being a simple passenger and will use systems such as GPS to direct the vehicle. My experience with using a GPS in many countries is that they are configured to use the main roads or freeways first – unless there is a problem with one of those. That is quite a sensible approach as it means that there is less chance of getting lost.
In Canada recently, virtually all my driving with a GPS was on what I term “simple” roads that possibly took a longer route than had I known the geography. One year I went to see a family member up near Lake Huron in Ontario and not knowing the area used the GPS which definitely took me the long way. On leaving I was advised to take a country road and this took me back to my destination in half the time – on much more enjoyable and quieter roads. Last year I went to MotorClassica in Melbourne and was heading down a major road when there were roadworks. Using the GPS on my phone, I found the best, quietest and pleasurable roads to get around the works, leaving the traffic jams behind.
I wonder about the future – if drivers are going to abandon the pleasures of controlling a vehicle, would that mean that they are also going to lose the desire to explore and find new routes to travel? The onboard GPS will always take the vehicle down the easiest route which is typically a freeway or main road. These roads will still be as congested as they often are today.
What will happen to all the nicer side roads? Will they become the preserve of the non-autonomous vehicles – the cars with people who enjoy the whole driving experience. That might not be such a bad thing for the enthusiast! However, you can bet that if the roads aren’t used enough, then the local Government will stop funding any repairs.
Perhaps the autonomous systems being developed will get more reliable input from external systems to show traffic flow or even poor road conditions and will direct the vehicle accordingly. It might be possible that load balancing systems could be developed using all the data that is planned to be stored online and shared between vehicles. This would then suggest different routes for different vehicles, spreading the traffic over several roads rather than one or two. That almost happens today with current GPS, however it only shows where the heavy traffic is and recommends the next main road to use.
Country towns are already struggling for economic injections from visitors and this has got worse since freeways and by-passes have been built. It is a fine balance between wanting all the traffic out of a town and keeping the businesses going – so much of their revenue comes from drivers stopping en route.
If autonomous vehicles get popular and we see a further reduction in long distances travelled by car, could we see another shift in social demographics as many more small towns wither away as the younger folk move to the cities because jobs become scarcer? Every new mode of transportation has had a big impact on demographics as people move for jobs or other opportunities. I think autonomous vehicles will provide a more subtle change in that people will become more sedentary and not travel interstate so much. It’s almost like society is heading back a few hundred years in time!
The downside of autonomous vehicles is that they are just another robot that enables humans to lose more skills. I’m sure that these vehicles will be useful around cities – especially electric ones that reduce pollution, however I hope that as a species, humans don’t fully lose the desire to travel and explore.