Driverless cars are undoubtedly cool. But beyond the obvious, they could have a profound impact on our lives in ways we can’t even yet begin to imagine. Here’s 5 possible ways it could all play out:
1). They will be much safer than what we have currently. “These systems never look down to check their text messages. They never reach down to change the knob on the radio,” says Mark Casey, portfolio manager at American Funds, who is already thinking about how these vehicles will impact the companies his firm invests in.
“They can see in the dark,” continues Casey. “They can see thermal images. So those cars, if they’re driving down a highway in the middle of the night and there’s a deer approaching the highway — your eye could never see it, but they can tell through their infrared sensor that there’s a warm object moving very close to the highway, and they’ll slow down and let that deer run by.”
Self-driving cars could save many of the 33,000 lives now lost each year in traffic accidents, predicts the National Transportation Safety Board. That could save $18 billion each year in health-care costs, the current estimate of emergency room visits related to motor vehicle injuries.
2). They’ll be here sooner than you think. Most experts predict a gradual geographic and functional roll-out of driverless technology. “Our cars will become increasingly autonomous over the next 25 years, and we can expect them to be fully autonomous by 2040,” says Wired magazine.
3). They could revolutionize life for seniors and other people with limited driving abilities. One of the most dreaded moments for seniors is losing the car keys. That represents a loss of independence and restricts how and where they can live. Regaining their mobility can transform older people’s lives by giving them back their sense of adventure, freedom and control. The same could be true for other people lacking mobility, as well as harried parents trying to figure out how to skip out of work to get Junior to soccer practice.
4). There will be huge winners and losers. Morgan Stanley estimates that municipal governments will save over half a trillion dollars by eliminating redundant parking garages and other infrastructure, and using roadways and public resources more efficiently. There will be massive cost savings due to lower fuel consumption, less congestion, less unproductive time spent commuting (an estimated 111 hours wasted annually per driver in the U.S.) and fewer accidents.
On the other hand, many people will be hurt. There is a dark side to all innovations, and it’s possible millions of truck drivers, bus drivers, delivery service drivers, Uber and cab drivers could be put out of work. “Driving a vehicle is an essential component of about one in eight jobs in America,” say researchers at Digital Trends. The demand for cars (and jobs for people who make or service cars or car parts) might drop precipitously. British bank Barclays observes that the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. Self-driving cars can be more easily “pooled,” resulting in a predicted decline of 2.1 vehicles per household in the U.S. to only 1.2.
5). But it’s not clear yet who the winners and losers will be. “Disruptive technologies tend to create new opportunities even as they eliminate old career paths,” observes Digital Trends. We can only guess at the extent and the pathway of that disruption. Global lifestyles will be dramatically affected by a switch to self-driving cars, in the same way that society was originally impacted by the introduction of the automobile. But it’s not yet clear what direction these changes will take, or how rapidly they’ll be phased in. That’s an argument for keeping an eye on your investments, and using experienced investment counsel to advise you on your portfolio.