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'

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
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

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'