Bill Lyons: Ready for self-driving cars?

A light rain and darkness falls on the cars traveling on the Antelope Valley freeway in December 2016. Dan Watson/The Signal

Self-driving cars are coming soon—and they will change your life. We are entering a profoundly dynamic age in transportation that will cause major shifts in our thinking, business, and government. Let’s review some of the key issues.

First, how soon is soon? Tesla has announced all their cars produced this year will be self-driving and will hit an annual production rate of 360,000 units by the end of this year. Business Insider predicts that Baidu, China’s largest automotive manufacturer, will have self-driving cars in production next year. Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Peugeot, Citroen, and Daimler/Mercedes will have driverless vehicles on show room floors in 2020—just three years away! The late-comers are BMW and Ford in 2021. Ford says their cars will forego steering wheels and pedals. Fancy that.

Jobs, regardless of government policy, will be lost. In the United States there are 3.5 million truck drivers, 80,000 cab drivers,160,000 Uber drivers, 500,000 school bus drivers, 800,000 delivery operators, and 160,000 transit bus drivers. That’s a total of 5.2 million people whose livelihood is threatened by the new technology.

A favorite political issue today is income inequality. It will widen no matter what Washington tries to do. Today’s trend away from low-skilled labor will continue to push jobs toward computer programmers creating deep-learning algorithms, sophisticated engineers designing high-density batteries, and visionary managers. Displaced truckers and bus drivers will be forced to acquire technical skills to survive. Government will assuredly step in as they always do, but can do little but put folks on the dole.

Skeptics may deny that safety will be greatly enhanced, but count on it. Here are the figures: there are roughly 40,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States alone. CNBC reports that 90% of car accidents are caused by human error. That’s 36,000 deaths caused by supposedly diligent drivers. Waymo, a division of Google’s parent Alphabet, has logged 3 million miles on city roads in California and Nevada and now has teamed with Lyft to give autonomous rides to people in Phoenix. Uber is testing modified Volvos in Pittsburgh and Peugeot in Singapore. To date, there has been just one autonomous car fatality. Think about it. Soon, everyone will be able to kick back in their car, text and even watch television without jeopardizing anyone’s health.

The impact on industry will be substantial. Here’s what says: With vastly fewer crashes, many collision repair shops will close and insurance companies will suffer collapsing revenue. Personal injury lawyers will be reduced to litigating one another over who gets the corner office. Local trips will be done more and more in electric self-driving cars resulting in less gasoline consumption. Uber and Lyft will most likely set up centralized fueling, further pressuring corner gas stations.

Here’s the big one. According to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, private ownership of cars will erode. Why? Uber-like services, lacking drivers, will cost 75 to 90% less than buying, maintaining and insuring a private car. Who wants to make car payments when you can arrange daily pick-ups electronically to take you to work? With your phone, Walmart is a click away and you can read your Kindle in transit. There’s another reason to dump your car—they’ll get more expensive. Today, 30% of your car’s cost is electronics and by 2030, it will go to 50%. Those costs are over and above the usual engine, tires, and seats of a car—stuff like that. Uber, or it’s competitors, will render home garages obsolete—they’ll make fine game room conversions.

So, be ready for big changes in our daily life. What’s first? Consider long haul trucking. No potty breaks, no government mandated limits on time behind the wheel, no motels, no wages. Push a button and the load heads off to Chicago by itself.

Ignore pending problems like job loss, business failures, and unemployed attorneys—there is a sunny side. As the number of private cars on the road are replaced by autonomous ones, there will be fewer freeway crashes, reduced pollution and substantial cost savings. There’s one last thing that will make liberals happy: autonomous cars will bring independence to seniors unable to drive.

Bill Lyons is a Saugus resident.

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