Google has shown that self-driving cars are inevitable - and the possibilities are endless

TV was originally just radio with pictures. Mobiles were just phones that moved around. Look at them now. Kevin Maney looks at what direction driverless cars heading in

Imagine a Thelma & Louise remake, circa 2030. Climax of the movie: two women sit in a convertible facing the edge of the Grand Canyon. Police surge towards them from behind.

Louise looks at the dashboard. "OK, Google Car – go!"

The car does nothing. The police close in. A disembodied voice chirps from the car speakers: "I'm sorry, it is unsafe to proceed."

"Damn autonomous cars!" Thelma yells as she pulls a revolver and shoots the dashboard.

Self-driving cars have become inevitable. Last month, California's Department of Motor Vehicles unveiled its first set of rules for autonomous vehicles. Google says that its cars have driven more than 700,000 miles and tests show they can watch for pedestrians and other surprises as well as human drivers can. Intel jumped in the other day, announcing its driverless-car chip. Progress is coming fast and furious.

When a radical new technology arrives, at first we tend to think of it as a modification of an existing technology. Put a motor on a four-wheel chassis and all you've got is a carriage that doesn't require a horse, right? Television seemed like radio with pictures. Mobile phones seemed like telephones that could move around. Yet in each case, the new item opened up possibilities no one expected. Cars led to suburbs and shopping malls. Mobile phones became pocket computers that are changing dating, banking, eating and just about everything else.

An interior view of a Google self-driving car in Mountain View, California An interior view of a Google self-driving car in Mountain View, California (Getty Images)
The first surge of autonomous vehicles probably won't even carry humans. One of the most intense emerging battle zones in retail is same-day, nearly instant delivery – Walmart and other bricks-and-mortar retailers think that they can fight Amazon by delivering orders from local stores in an hour or two. Amazon fired a shot back by saying it is working on delivery by drones that will land a package on your doorstep.

But the idea of drone delivery is wishful thinking, like a hangover-less whisky. "The laws of physics still apply," says Paul Saffo, the managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics. He doesn't see how drones could ever carry enough packages to make the economics work, plus there are all the other attending problems. Who's liable if the family dog attacks a drone, or when a sudden rain shower makes drones short out and drop pizzas on unsuspecting pedestrians?

What makes more sense for this forthcoming battle? Autonomous vehicles built to drive up to your door with a package or food order and text you to come out and get it. To do that job, the vehicle doesn't have to look like anything we've seen before. Throw out seats or headroom for a human. Make the things electric. Design something unique – maybe a cross between a U-Haul trailer and R2-D2. In a couple of decades, they will be whizzing all over city streets.

Read more: UK to rewrite Highway Code for driverless cars
Uber plans to replace cab drivers with self-driving cars
Google’s driverless car points to a greener future
7 things you didn't know about Google's self-driving car
Would you use one of Google's self-driving cars?
Google unveils plans for first self-driving cars

At the same time, Western societies are ageing. When people get too old, they have to stop driving, and by 2030, more than 20 per cent of the US and UK populations will be over 65. So we will all welcome a solution that gives the elderly cars that drive themselves.

But why do a one-for-one replacement of regular cars for driverless cars? Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar, an American car-sharing company, imagines a situation more like an on-demand autonomous-car subscription service – the offspring of Zipcar and Uber, a company that makes apps that connect passengers with drivers. A fleet of such cars would be stationed all around town. You'd use your phone to call for the nearest one, which would pick you up within five minutes. The service wouldn't take you cross-country, but it certainly would take you across town to PizzaExpress.

There's no reason for such vehicles to look anything like today's cars. Most trips will involve taking one person a short distance, so perhaps these cars will look like the new three-wheeled one-seater called Elio – minus the steering wheel. These services will change the way we think about personal transportation – instead of something to own, it will be something to subscribe to. Cars will go through the kind of shift that music is going through now as it moves to subscription services: we used to own music, whether as LPs, CDs or MP3s, but soon we're just going to rent it.

All told, the most profound impact of autonomous cars and lorries could be the end of the very idea of a car or lorry. Driving a car might become like riding a horse: something rich people do for fun at the weekend.

Robin Chase believes that if we don't think differently about cars – if we just replace human-driven cars with computer-driven cars – it will turn into a nightmare. Today, cars stay parked on average 95 per cent of the time. If everybody comes to own an autonomous car, a lot of people will send them out to run errands – send the car to pick up a child or to go and get itself repaired. If that were to lead to the same number of cars per person and lower the time an average car stayed parked to even 90 per cent, traffic would explode. In a subscription model, cars would be shared, vastly lowering the number of cars per person.

A transformation of transportation will have all sorts of consequences. Some will be rough. The job of "driver" – whether of taxis or delivery vans – could go the way of lift operators and milkmen. "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" will wind up being a song about a bygone era when you could actually sneak away in a car. Since a subscription car would always know where you are, the privacy of a car will be no more.

If people no longer drive, then driving drunk will become something previous generations used quaintly to worry about. Autonomous cars could do for drinking what birth-control pills did for sex.

It has always been a bad idea to put humans in control of two tons of metal and glass hurtling down a sliver of pavement at 60mph. In the US alone, car crashes kill 33,000 people a year and suck $277bn (£163bn) out of the economy, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In a world of autonomous, subscription-based Uber-Zip pod cars, nobody could drive off a cliff. The 2030 Thelma & Louise script would have to turn Brad Pitt into a nerdy coder who helps them to override the Google Car programming with their smart earrings.

A version of this article appeared in 'Newsweek'

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Market Administrator (1st line Support, Bloomberg, Broker)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Administrator (1st line Support, Trade Fl...

    Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

    Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Server, Reuters)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Se...

    Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, Exchange)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, E...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition