I'd like you to think about the following scenario:
7:30 – – wake up.
7:40 – – have a cup of coffee and some breakfast.
8:00 – – shower.
8:20 – – have another cup of coffee, catch up on paperwork, send out some emails.
9 o'clock – – arrive at work.
[Upddate -- I should have been clearer about this, but I'm talking about a commute. I should have been explicit that around 7:35, the setting shifts from home to vehicle.]
The working title for this post was "the RV/AV." Unlike a large portion of the articles you see speculating on how autonomous vehicles might change things, this one is based entirely on existing technology. The only jump here (and it is a fairly small one) is that the route of the commute is geo-fenced (almost all of it should be on major highways).
If the technological obstacles are minimal, what about the other potential concerns? There is, as always, cost to consider. Even a small RV will probably run as much or more than a nice SUV, particularly when you factor in the water and waste tanks, but if you're spending the extra money for an autonomous system anyway, you might as well spend a little more and get the most out of it.
And if this is an appealing and commercially viable option for a significant number of people, it raises a slew of interesting and in some cases disturbing implications.Utopian urbanists have realized for a while now that the coming of autonomous vehicles is likely to be very damaging to their vision of the future, but this scenario doubles the negative impact. You have larger, less fuel efficient vehicles making much, much longer commutes.
When I lived in the Hampton Roads area (near Virginia Beach) I chose, for me, an unusually long commute of around a half hour. The main reason was that I wanted to live in a cool neighborhood with lots of cool places to hang out (including a great local art-house theater) and a spectacular view of the water, but I was also influenced by how pleasant the commute itself was. I started and ended each working day driving along then across the Chesapeake Bay without much traffic to contend with. If the drive had been less scenic and more congested, I probably would've chosen to live closer to work.
Perhaps I'm wrong on this one, but I get the feeling that a lot of commentators are making the permanent novelty fallacy when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Right now, the thought of sitting back and letting your car steer itself seems radically new and different. Experience has taught us, however, that people tend to adjust to new technology very quickly and the novelty factor is likely to drop to insignificance. At that point, the main difference between your car of today and the self driving car tomorrow will be the fact that you can play with your iPhone during your morning commute.
Personally the difference between driving and simply sitting in a car for an hour is not that big, not in terms of time or productivity or personal comfort. The RV/AV scenario, on the other hand, would present a huge improvement. Since you would be doing roughly the same things in roughly the same manner during the commute that you would have been doing at home otherwise In a very real sense, the commute is not taking any time out of your day. In terms of scheduling, even teleportation wouldn't be an improvement.
I don't think we should (or can) try to put this genie back in the bottle, but I suspect there are a lot of externalities we haven't thought through.