Self-Driving Cars: OK, Now It’s Getting Weird . . .

How will driverless cars impact the car business?

Google is protesting a ruling in California that self-driving cars must have a human behind the wheel. What? Were we thinking of having cars drive around without anyone in them?

It seems California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is drafting regulations saying that drivers in that state can sit behind the wheels of self-driving cars in 2017. The more surprising thing to me is that Google expressed “grave disappointment” that the new rules don’t allow vehicles to drive around without a licensed driver behind the wheel.

Are we really to the point where we want 10,000-lb machines cruising down the freeway at 70 miles per hour with no one inside? We could put aside the question of safety for other drivers, because some technology types say driverless cars will be safer. They won’t make human mistakes, they won’t break the law, they won’t drink and drive, and they won’t fall asleep.

Maybe so. But let’s talk about some more practical things. How will driverless cars affect traffic? If Amazon decides to deploy 5,000 driverless cars to make deliveries in a single city, would that be OK? How about Walmart? If it wants to send out 1,000 delivery vans in your town, would that be OK? If delivery companies decide to add 10,000 big semi trucks to their routes, would that be OK?

Here in Seattle, we have to make a reservation to take the ferry. Are we going to have to make a reservation to drive on the road to our job, or to go grocery shopping because there are four times as many cars on the road per year? What if you can’t get a reservation because some company has booked all 5,000 of its driverless vehicles, so the road you need is full?

Perhaps the bigger question for auto dealers: How will self-driving and driverless cars impact the car business? Will consumers buy fewer cars if they won’t be driving them? Will people spend $50,000 on a car if they can walk out their door, climb into a self-driving car, and pay $5 round-trip to be driven to and from work? Twenty-two workdays a month time $5 per day equals $110 per month. That kind of beats the heck out of a $400 or $500 car payment.

Also, what if while the car is driving you to your workplace, you are also working and getting paid? Suddenly your two-hour to-and-from commute is just two hours of your eight-hour workday. For radio stations that depend on drive-time listeners, if people stop listening to radio on the way to work because they can watch TV, guess what happens to radio?

The driverless car era is coming fast, and some will make big money on it, but others will lose their shirts. Which are you? I guess we better think about it.

Brett Stevenson


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