Self-Driving Cars: Not If, But When

As you are reading this, a major winter storm is bearing down on the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. There are roughly 5 million people that live in that Census designation alone, and there will be millions more affected by this storm.

My wife and I used to be among those 5 million, and a few people asked me this week what it would be like commuting to work when it is snowing in the DC area. Of course, they knew it would invoke an extreme reaction. We know how many accidents happen in the Dakotas due to snowfall, so naturally that will be multiplied several times over when millions of more people enter the mix.

And my response, by the way, was that I simply didn’t go to work those days. Life is too short to fight congested traffic that isn’t budging because of icy accidents!

But living out there gave me an interesting perspective on the future of driving. Before moving out there, I had thought the idea of self-driving cars was mostly science fiction. I didn’t take the concept seriously, and I didn’t expect to see much of it in my lifetime. But through casual conversation with my DC area coworkers, I soon learned my view of this was a small-minded one.

People living in major cities not only expect self-driving cars to happen, they can’t wait for the technology to arrive. Traffic in cities is awful during a normal day, and life-crippling if it rains or snows. Automated cars that avoid accidents, or automated roadways that control the flow of traffic, can provide a large boost to the quality of life for urban dwellers. The average commuter will save many hours a week from not being stuck in traffic, while simultaneously reducing their stress. The thought of being stuck in traffic only once in a while, instead of almost every day, is a reality everyone is eager to accept.

This changed my opinion of self-driving cars completely. One of the greatest risks of any technological advancement is adoption. Some technology provides great value, but people may fail to recognize it immediately, leaving us to say “it was before its time.” But with self-driving cars, the public desperately wants it, leaving implementation simply a logistical issue. When enough people want something so bad in a free society like ours, there will be technologists that find a way to make it happen!

As for the Dakotas, here I can see adoption occurring somewhat slower due to lack of immediate necessity. Our problems are actually the opposite of our urban counterparts. Our cities are easily navigable, but the distances between our communities is vast and empty. Where we will benefit from self-driving cars are the long road trips. Here, self-driving cars will free us up for activities that require more concentration. Fifteen years from now, instead of having a driver focus on keeping the car pointed straight on the interstate, that same driver may be playing cards with his or her family, or completing a time-sensitive work project on their laptop.