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Self-Driving Cars are Ready to Change Everything

In the center of the Venn diagram covering sociology, anthropology, and psychology, there is a concept known as a “keystone habit,” and it is exactly what it sounds like — a single habit that, when altered, has a ripple effect on various other, seemingly unrelated, habits. Consistent exercise, for example, is often considered a keystone habit (because it leads to eating healthier, getting more sleep, building muscle, etc.).

On a societal level, driving is a keystone habit. And if the global fleet of some 1.2 billion vehicles were to switch from being self-owned-and-operated to Fully Autonomous Ridesharing (let’s make this Nerdist-official and give it our own acronym: FAR) there would be not a ripple but a wave effect on day-to-day life. Several companies hoping to be the first to change everything.

Enter the corporate giants. From the tech world: Alphabet, Tesla, Uber, Lyft, and Apple; from the automotive world: Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and just about every other large carmaker. They all know that FAR is the future, and they’ve dedicated huge sums of money and intellectual efforts toward developing what will essentially be a driverless taxi service (some images of their efforts are in the gallery below).

Changes from FAR vehicles would be subtle at first but substantial over time. If we imagine a city with a fully autonomous vehicle population capable of servicing anyone in need of a ride at any time, nobody would need to own a car. Vehicles could be kept moving 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which means all of that space used for parking — in some cities as much as a third of real estate — could be repurposed for homes, hospitals, restaurants, or anything aside from a place to put cars that are not in use.

The number of vehicle-accident deaths per year (1.3 million globally) would likely drop drastically, considering FAR vehicles like Google’s have already driven over a million miles without a single crash caused by machine error. (With autonomous vehicles, there’d be no more driving while drunk, tired, or angry.)

There could be a massive increase in productivity as well. U.S. drivers spend an average of 37 hours in traffic every year per capita (and it’s more than double that in big cities like D.C. and L.A.), and with at least 212 million licensed drivers, a completely autonomous vehicle population would lead to an extra 7.85 billion hours of time per year for Americans to spend sleeping, reading, playing Fallout 4, or watching Star Wars.

Considering the positive consequences of FAR, and the likelihood that people will gravitate toward its ease and safety, it’s clear that driving is not only a keystone habit, but also a keystone business. Fully Autonomous Ridesharing is the name of the game.


Uber has a head start when it comes to the “Ridesharing” part of FAR. It has a trusted network in place, and almost everybody who’s used its service knows that with Uber, they can pop open the app and easily have a ride arrive at their door in minutes. What Uber doesn’t have at this point, however, is vehicle manufacturing capability—or extensive experience in designing a fully autonomous vehicle. But that deficiency won’t last long, as the company has already teamed up with Carnegie Melon and is using significant amounts of its $2.7 billion war chest to develop its own self-driving vehicle.


Tesla has a head start in vehicle manufacturing, electric drivetrains (batteries and motors), and real-world experience with autopilot systems. Tesla hopes to “evolve” its way to full autonomy, with its vehicle fleet working as an artificially intelligent mega-swarm. This means that when one vehicle in the fleet (of tens of thousands now, but likely millions in the future) learns of a specific obstacle—like a construction zone—or a specific method for driving more effectively—like slowing down around bends—those pieces of information are immediately loaded into every other Tesla on the road. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla (and SpaceX), has specifically stated that “generalized full autonomy… is a super high priority.”


Alphabet’s head start stems from its vast sources of capital (about $72 billion in annual revenue), a decade of research in this area, and a fully functioning prototype that uses a LIDAR (combo of “light” and “radar”) system. The drawback with Alphabet’s vehicles however, is that unlike Tesla’s cars that can learn on the fly, their vehicles need extraordinarily precise mapping (down to the centimeter) in order to work correctly. In other words, Tesla’s vehicles will “figure out” how to get to their destination, whereas Alphabet’s cars will follow a predetermined path from point A to B. This makes them potentially less flexible (no sudden changes in route). Although once maps of all of the roads on Earth are detailed enough, this won’t be a problem. And if there’s anybody who knows mapping, it’s Alphabet’s subsidiary company, Google.

Apple’s foray into this arena has yet to be fully un-shrouded, although it is certainly developing something called “Project Titan,” which is in all likelihood its own take on a fully autonomous, fully electric vehicle. And with even deeper pockets than Alphabet—as well as some of the top engineering and design talent in the world—Apple will likely become a serious contender once it enters this game (fashionably late as always).

The traditional automakers have their respective efforts as well (including the Mercedes F 015 pictured above), but as of yet, nothing they’ve done quite matches up to what’s coming out of Silicon Valley. This isn’t a surprise considering full autonomy is a software problem more than anything.

So, with the purpose of FAR and (some of) the players in the game established, the future of driving and all of the benefits of full autonomy are clear: we’re headed for a time when nobody will need to own a car. A time when nobody will have to bother with driving, or traffic. A time when nobody will lose his or her life or the life of a loved one due to a traffic accident.

But there are still huge obstacles in the way of switching from user-owned-and-operated to fully autonomous vehicles. Not only are there likely to be roadblocks put up by governments—who will want to see proof of safety—but also a general public that may not adapt easily to being driven around by a computer that can, and probably will, glitch on occasion. So while it may be awhile before we’re all cruising around in cities full of Total Recall Johnny Cabs, it’s nothing more than matter of time.

What do you think about the move toward Fully Autonomous Ridesharing? Are you ready to trust your life to a computer, or do you think we may be headed for an automotive version of the HAL 9000 situation? Let us know in the comments section below!

Feature Image: deviantART // ThexRealxBanks
Gallery Images: Google Self-Driving Car Project, Flickr // Steve Jurvetson, Flickr // Gust , Flickr // Steve Jurvetson, Flickr // Ars Electronica 


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