Self-driving cars, Uber, and the public transportation revolution

Everyone expects self-driving cars to be the next world-changing revolution, and it is easy to see why. Image recognition has made insane improvements in the last decade - Facebook's face detection is sometimes uncanny in its ability to differentiate people from objects. Google Maps routing features have improved leaps and bounds since the first release, and with cellphone connectivity becoming more and more ubiquous, it's feasible to monitor traffic in real time.

We have electric cars that aren't complete crap anymore. Hybrids like the Prius have been pretty normal for years now, and both BMWs i3 and eventually Tesla's Model 3 are fully electric cars set to break the price barrier, making them more than a gimmick for the hipster crowd.

These cars don't have to be electric, but it will be an important factor in the actual revolution. I grew up in Europe, lived in Paris, France for a few years. I've seen what public transportation can do - buses, trains, subways - to reduce the need for a car. In the US, public transportation is mostly shit, except in some cities (never been to New York, but Los Angeles has somewhat functional public transport).

Self-driving cars will be the public transportation revolution that America needed, the biggest push since building the train system in the 1800s. Right now, car ownership is the norm for people in America. A lot of families own a car per adult family member. The belief is that those families will buy self-driving cars in the same manner, essentially keeping the car market as-is and just remove the need to personally drive.

I think that people aren't going to buy as many cars in the long run. Self-driving cars are essentially like trains, except that their "tracks" are ubiquous. Companies like Uber (or maybe Lyft or maybe some new company that hasn't been founded yet) will go after Amtrack and similar companies with the same force as they are going after the taxi business.

Why own your own car if you can just call one? Right now, even the cheap Uber option costs enough money to not be a serious primary means of transportation for most people. But imagine if Uber no longer has to pay the driver of the car. At that point, they basically pay for repairs, fuel, and insurance, plus their profit margin. Instead of being a company that subcontracts thousands of drivers, they would be a company that buys tens of thousands of self-driving cars.

This is where the fact that they are electric cars is important - apart from having charging stations all over the place, we should look at upgrading busy streets to help charging the cars. Solar Roadways is an early attempt at converting streets into huge solar panels, and if someone comes up with a way to charge a car from the street (metal contact plates in the tires?), the range of electric cars could increase a lot. And since it's solar power, there is potential to really bring the prices down after the initial investment.

Of course, there is a lot of Utopia in this - Electric Self-Driving Cars, charged in part with free, unlimited energy through Solar Roadways, available for hire at a price that makes car ownership a status symbol instead of a neccessity.

Undoubtly, lobbying will be severe, from car makers in Detroit to unions of drivers that are facing unemployment, People will claim that owning a car is owning the freedom to go wherever, whenever, and that a gas guzzling V8 truck is patriotic.

But in the end, I see the end of car ownership for millions of people. The "freedom" argument won't hold much once you can call a car to be with you in five minutes, at any time of the night. Self-Driving Cars don't need to sleep, they don't fear driving into shady areas and they won't complain if you need a fifty mile ride at 3 a.m. Especially not if it will be significantly cheaper than owning one. We might even seen more carpooling since an intelligent routing system can just pick up a bunch of people on the way.

This will happen in my lifetime.