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6 surprising ways driverless cars will change our world

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Ford's "City of Tomorrow" concept features autonomous vehicles and increased public transportation.
Ford's "City of Tomorrow" concept features autonomous vehicles and increased public transportation.Ford Motor Company

Despite the recent pair of fatal crashes involving self-driving cars, there’s wide agreement that autonomous vehicles will sharply reduce the number of people who die in motor vehicle accidents. In the U.S. alone, traffic accidents claim more than 30,000 lives a year; experts say that by the middle of this century, that toll could fall by up to 90 percent.

Eventually, driverless cars will take human motorists out of the equation entirely. When that happens, fewer traffic fatalities will be only the most obvious consequence. Because automobiles are so central to our society and national economy — and so much a part of everyday life — the switch to autonomous vehicles is likely to alter our lives in strange and remarkable ways.

“I think we’re going to be really surprised by how many things change,” says Dr. Chris Gerdes, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University.

Here’s a peek at what a future filled with driverless cars could look like.

1. We’ll be less likely to own a car

Driverless cars may not end America’s long-running love affair with the automobile. But with fleets of autonomous vehicles offering low-cost, convenient transportation that can be summoned in minutes, fewer people may want to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to own and maintain their own vehicle.

“We’re moving to a future where people don’t own cars,” says Dr. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “You’ll have a subscription service, maybe, that emphasizes smaller vehicles, or you might want a cheaper service where it’s a van,” he adds.

Image:  A row of Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
In this photo taken on May 14, 2014, a row of Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.Eric Risberg / AP

Dr. Alain Kornhauser, director of the program in transportation at Princeton University, says privately owned cars are unlikely to vanish completely — especially in rural areas, where it might prove inconvenient to wait for a driverless taxi to show up. Still, he says, the number of people who own cars — and the number of cars owned per family — will drop sharply.

2. Urban centers will evolve

Driverless cars will bring big changes to city infrastructure. “We’ve made the world rather unfriendly for people who are walking and biking; cars have essentially won,” Gerdes says. But driverless cars could put the focus back on pedestrians, he says.

Since driverless cars will move with greater precision than human-driven vehicles, streets could be narrower, with more space set aside for pedestrians and cyclists, according to a report issued last fall by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Crossing the street may be easier, too. With driverless cars watching out for pedestrians, people may be able to “cross the streets where it makes sense, rather than trek a mile to the nearest stoplight,” Mollie Pelon, the organization’s technology and city transportation program manager, told Wired.

Driverless cars will also make for safer intersections, and perhaps even do away with traffic lights, which, of course, came about before cars themselves knew how to avoid collisions.

And with more cars spending more of their time on the road rather than parked, there will be less need for parking lots and parking garages, Kornhauser says. That could free up space for other uses, including parks.

3. Businesses will come to us

The same technologies used in driverless cars will also show up in vans and trucks — vehicles large enough to be used as mobile offices, stores, and the like. So rather than having customers come to their locations, retailers and other businesses may start taking their goods and services directly to customers, Gerdes says.

Imagine ordering up a gym that drives to you and parks in your driveway for an hour or two before moving on to the next customer. Gerdes thinks mobile gyms are a possibility, along with mobile clothing stores stocked with apparel and equipped with dressing rooms. “You could try on a bunch of things you had requested, see what size works for you, and then the rest of it simply leaves at the end of your session,” he says.

A Santa Clara, California-based startup called Robomart aims to send on-demand mobile grocery stores to customers, and Toyota recently unveiled plans for a driverless vehicle that could deliver packages or serve as a mobile office or hotel room.

4. More people will be able to live independently

Driverless cars promise to transform the lives of people who have trouble getting around because of illness, old age, or disability. For “all those folks, this is basically a dream come true,” Kornhauser says of a world in which driverless cars are ubiquitous.

Paratransit services are now available, of course, but not in all areas. And conventional taxicabs can be costly and often can’t accommodate wheelchairs, Dr. Srikanth Saripalli, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, wrote in a recent article.

Image: The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event
The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event on Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco.Eric Risberg / AP file

Saripalli envisions driverless shuttles scanning their surroundings with lasers, cameras, and radar to find the easiest place for a passenger to board. And Waymo, the autonomous car subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is testing buttons with Braille and other tools designed to make it easy for visually impaired people to use driverless cars.

5. Donor organs could be in short supply

About 13 percent of the organs made available for donation in recent years came from people who died in car crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When driverless cars are the norm and few people are dying on the road, there may be a shortage of hearts, livers, and other donor organs.

But help may be on the way. From harvesting donor organs from pigs to growing organs in the lab to developing better ways to transport organs over long distances, scientists are working on ways to close the gap.

6. People will rethink their living arrangements

It’s no secret that commuting to work by car is stressful, especially over long distances or in heavy traffic. But once commuters are no longer required to drive and are able instead to read, sleep, or simply relax on their way to and from work, even long commutes may seem acceptable, researchers from the MIT Center for Real Estate predicted in a 2017 report on trends in real estate in the U.S.

And so some workers may choose to live farther away from their places of work — decamping to distant suburbs or even to rural areas.

But given that urban centers will become more livable, the report states that other workers will choose to skip suburbia and instead move into city centers — where they could walk or bike to work.