The pace of implementation may be slower than was once anticipated, but the reality of self-driving vehicles is already upon us. While there have been plenty of snags along the way, including one woman who was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Arizona last year, the technology is moving forward and already being deployed in multiple locations. One of those is a private development in Virginia where low-speed shuttles carry people from large parking lots to their eventual destinations.
At a building site in Reston, there is something small and quiet on the roads alongside big noisy dump trucks: automated shuttles that ferry office workers whose routines have been disrupted by the construction.
The shuttles’ job is to make runs from parking lots that have been shifted farther from people’s offices. But when the new offices, apartments and stores go up on the 36-acre Halley Rise development in Northern Virginia and a Metro station opens nearby, the company that operates them hopes the vehicles will speed people on the first or last mile of their daily commute.
These developments have made me wonder about what the future looks like when this technology is fully ubiquitous. We’re already seeing self-driving Ubers you can summon and shuttles taking large groups of passengers. There are trains with nobody driving them in Japan. And autonomous (probably electric) cars for personal use aren’t far away.
That seems to be the future and it’s not far off. The first generation of Americans who largely will never have or need a driver’s license is likely being born right now. They will live in a world where the ability to drive a car or truck is an oddity, a relic from a time they only see in classic films and television shows.
So is this a good thing? It’s obviously a case of cultural evolution happening at an accelerated pace, particularly in a country like the United States where “car culture” has been part of our makeup for over a century. But like any other form of evolution, it comes at a cost. We will have a country full of people who no longer possess the skill to drive a vehicle. And most likely, roadways full of vehicles that eventually won’t even have steering wheels or pedals allowing a human being to operate them.
You might be wondering why they would need such things once the change takes place. But just as with all the other technological wonders we’ve adapted to, the day may come when the technology shuts down, potentially for a long time. A massive EMP that takes out the satellites and fries most of the power transformers will immediately render all of this technology useless. Various other catastrophic scenarios are possible, if (hopefully) unlikely. How will people travel? More to the point, how will food and other necessities be transported?
We continue to build a future that was something out of a science fiction movie only one generation ago. But we’re also evolving toward a society that will be incapable of caring for itself without all that technology.