As I argued in my last blog post, transportation in the U.S. has only experienced modest and incremental gains over the last 50+ years. However, I think that will change in the next 10-15 years. The reason will be the rise of the driverless (or autonomous) car.
If you're not aware of the new technology, Google and a number of car companies have been testing out self-driving vehicles for a while now. In fact, Nevada is beginning to issue special license plates for vehicles that are experimentally self-driving. Google's automated vehicles have logged over 100,000 miles on California roads (with a human inside just in case).
The reason I am so optimistic about this phenomenon is that it has the potential to coexist with our current system of human drivers. Most proposals for massive change in the transportation system (think high speed light rail or even electric cars) require that a large percentage of the population adopt it quickly. This is because that is needed to overcome the large investment required. And the incentives don't exist.
In the case of autonomous cars, there are few network problems to overcome. You can keep your Ford pick-up truck, while my Audi drives itself right next to you. The adoption of autonomous cars can be phased in by market forces, rather than relying on a huge investment by a government entity. This takes the biggest barrier to adoption away.
And the benefits will be enormous. In 2009, there were 10.8 million auto accidents and 35,000 fatalities in the United States. While cars have gotten safer leading to declines in the accident and fatality rates, the growth in technology may mean drivers are paying less attention. (Those of you reading this blog while driving down I-65 at 70 mph, please put your phone away). While there may be a significant test period, it is hard to imagine that autonomous vehicles won't have a much better safety record than human driven cars.
Further, driverless cars can do a better job of avoiding traffic jams and not creating them. Get a large majority of autonomous cars, and suddenly the traffic problems may ease up. Other benefits include the ability to turn the car into a mobile office. That hour commute to the office may be the perfect time for checking e-mail, grading homework, or doing anything except actually driving the car.
Further down the road, when cars truly drive themselves with nobody in them, there may be little reason to own a car. After all, car sharing services like Zip Car already make it convenient to share a car rather than owning one. Imagine what happens when you can pull up an app on your iPhone 10 (or maybe iPhone 20) and have the Zip car drive itself to your door within a couple minutes. Suddenly, you have something that looks like a massive public transportation system, with automated vehicles driving you wherever you need to go. The savings in time, money, energy, and lives will be absolutely remarkable.
Of course, not everybody agrees that this change is imminent. I agree that there are challenges (legal, regulatory, and consumer acceptance) that must be overcome. The first time an autonomous vehicle is in a fatal accident will create a huge debate/problem. However, I think these problems will be overcome, and once adoption begins, I believe it will happen very quickly. The idea of manually driving your car will be as antiquated as manual transmission vehicles have become.
Ten years from now, self driving cars will be widely available. Twenty years from now, they'll be all that is available. I can't wait.