Coping With A Potential Mobility Frenzy Due To AI Autonomous Cars

If true self-driving cars become available, would we become more enamored of using cars to take many more short trips, thus increasing traffic and pollution? (GETTY IMAGES)

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Walk or drive?

That’s sometimes a daily decision that we all need to make.

A colleague the other day drove about a half block down the street from his office, just to get a coffee from his favorite coffee shop.

You might assume that foul weather prompted him to use his car for the half-block coffee quest rather than hoofing the distance on foot.

Nope, there wasn’t any rain, no snow, no inclement weather of any kind.

Maybe he had a bad leg or other ailments?

No, he’s in perfectly good health and was readily capable of strutting the half-block distance.

Here in California, we are known for our car culture and devotion to using our automobiles for the smallest of distances. Our motto seems to be that you’d be foolhardy to walk when you have a car that can get you to your desired destination, regardless of the distance involved.

Numerous publicly stated concerns have been raised about this kind of mindset.

Driving a car when you could have walked is tantamount to producing excess pollution that could have been otherwise avoided. The driving act also causes the consumption of fuel, along with added wear-and-tear on the car and the roadway infrastructure, all of which seem unnecessary for short walkable trips.

And don’t bring up the obesity topic and how valuable walking can be to your welfare, it’s a point that might bring forth fisticuffs from some drivers that believe fervently in using their car to drive anyplace and all places, whenever they wish.

One aspect that likely factored into his decision was whether there was a place to park his car, since the coffee shop was not a drive thru.

We all know how downright exasperating it can be to find a parking spot.

Suppose that parking never became a problem again.

Suppose that using a car to go a half-block distance was always readily feasible.

Suppose that you could use a car for any driving distance and could potentially even use a car to get from your house to a neighbor’s home just down the street from you.

Some of us, maybe a lot of us, might become tempted to use cars a lot more than we do now.

In the United States, we go about 3.22 trillion miles per year via our cars. That’s though based on various barriers or hurdles involved in opting to make use of a car.

Here’s an intriguing question: If we had true self-driving cars available, ready 24×7 to give you a lift, would we become more enamored of using cars and taking many more short trips?

Think of the zillions of daily short trips that might be done via car use.

Add to that amount the ease of going longer distances than today you might not do, perhaps driving to see your grandma when you normally wouldn’t feel up to the driving task.

The 3.22 trillion miles of car usage could jump dramatically.

It could rise by say 10% or 20%, or maybe double or triple in size.

It could generate an outsized mobility frenzy.

Let’s unpack the matter and explore the implications of this seemingly uncapped explosion of car travel.

For the grand convergence leading to the advent of self-driving cars, see my discussion here:

The emergence of self-driving cars is like trying to achieve a moonshot, here’s my explanation:

There are ways for a self-driving car to look conspicuous, I’ve described them here:

To learn about how self-driving cars will be operated non-stop, see my indication here:

The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to true self-driving cars.

True self-driving cars are ones where the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless cars are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-ons that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional cars, so it’s unlikely to have much of an impact on how many miles we opt to travel.

For semi-autonomous cars, it is equally important that I mention a disturbing aspect that’s been arising, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the car, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Distances Traveled

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving cars, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

For those of you that use ridesharing today, you’ll be joined by millions upon millions of other Americans that will be doing the same, except there won’t be a human driver behind the wheel anymore.

Similar to requesting a ridesharing trip of today, we will all merely consult our smartphone and request a lift. The nearest self-driving car will respond to your request and arrive to pick you up.

Some believe that we’ll have so many self-driving cars on our roads that they’ll be quick to reach you.

Furthermore, these driverless cars will be roaming and meandering constantly, awaiting the next request for a pick-up, and thus will be statistically close to you whenever you request a ride.

Nobody is sure what the cost to use self-driving cars will be, but let’s assume for the moment that the cost is less than today’s human-driven ridesharing services. Indeed, assume that the cost is a lot lower, perhaps several times less than a human-driven alternative.

Let’s put two and two together.

Ubiquitous driverless cars, ready to give you a lift, doing so at a minimal cost, and can whisk you to whatever destination you specify.

The AI that’s driving the car won’t berate you for going a half-block.

No need to carry on idle chit chat with the AI.

It’s like going for a ride in a chauffeur-driven car, and you are in full command of saying where you want to go, without any backlash from the driver (the AI isn’t going to whine or complain, though perhaps there will be a mode that you can activate if that’s the kind of driving journey you relish).

This is going to spark induced demand on steroids.

Induced demand refers to suppressed demand for a product or service that can spring forth once that product or service becomes more readily available.

The classic example involves adding a new lane to an existing highway or freeway. We’ve all experienced the circumstance whereby the new lane doesn’t end-up alleviating traffic.

Why not?

Because there is usually suppressed demand that comes out of the woodwork to fill-up the added capacity. People that before were unwilling to get onto the roadway due to the traffic congestion are bound to think that the added lane makes it viable to now do so, yet once they start to use the highway it ends-up with so much traffic that once again the lanes get jammed.

With the advent of driverless cars, and once the availability of using car travel enters a nearly friction-free mode, the logical next step is that people will use car travel abundantly.

All those short trips that might have been costly to take or might have required a lot of waiting time, you’ll now be able to undertake those with ease.

In fact, some believe that self-driving cars could undermine micro-mobility too.

Micro-mobility is the use of electric scooters, shared bikes, and electric skateboards, which today are gradually growing in popularity to go the “last mile” to your destination.

If a driverless car can take you directly to your final destination, no need to bother with some other travel option such as micro-mobility.

How far down this self-driving car rabbit hole might we go?

There could be the emergence of a new cultural norm that you always are expected to use a driverless car, and anyone dumb enough or stubborn enough to walk or ride a bike is considered an oddball or outcast.

Is this what we want?

Could it cause some adverse consequences and spiral out-of-control?

For info about self-driving cars as a form of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), see my explanation here:

On the use of self-driving cars for family vacations, see my indication:

In terms of idealism about self-driving cars, here’s my analysis:

A significant aspect will be induced demand for AI autonomous cars, which I explain here:

Mobility Frenzy Gets A Backlash

Well, it could be that we are sensible enough that we realize there isn’t a need to always use a driverless car when some alternative option exists.

Even if driverless cars are an easy choice, our society might assert that we should still walk and ride our bikes and scooters.

Since driverless cars are predicted to reduce the number of annual deaths and injuries due to car accidents, people might be more open to riding bikes and scooters, plus pedestrians might be less worried about getting run over by a car.

Futuristic cities and downtown areas might ban any car traffic in their inner core area. Self-driving cars will get you to the outer ring of the inner core, and from that point, you’ll need to walk or use a micro-mobility selection.

From a pollution perspective, using today’s combustion engine cars is replete with lots of tailpipe emissions. The odds are that self-driving cars will be EV’s (Electrical Vehicles), partially due to the need to have such vast amounts of electrical power for the AI and on-board computer processors. As such, the increased use of driverless cars won’t boost pollution on par with gasoline-powered cars.

Nonetheless, there is a carbon footprint associated with the electrical charging of EV’s. We might become sensitive to how much electricity we are consuming by taking so many driverless car trips. This could cause people to think twice before using a self-driving car.


Keep in mind that we are assuming that self-driving cars will be priced so low on a ridesharing basis that everyone will readily be able to afford to use driverless cars.

It could be that the cost is not quite as low as assumed, in which case the cost becomes a mitigating factor to dampen the mobility frenzy.

Another key assumption is that driverless cars will be plentiful and roaming so that they are within a short distance of anyone requesting a ride.

My colleague would have likely walked to the coffee shop in a world of self-driving cars if the driverless car was going to take longer to reach him than the time it would take to just meander over on his own.

And, this future era of mobility-for-all is going to occur many decades from now, since we today have 250 million conventional cars and it will take many years to gradually mothball them and have a new stock of self-driving cars gradually become prevalent.

Are self-driving cars going to be our Utopia, or might it be a Dystopia in which people no longer walk or ride bikes and instead get into their mobility bubbles and hide from their fellow humans while making the shortest of trips?

The frenzy would be of our own making, and hopefully, we could also deal with shaping it to ensure that we are still a society of people and walking, though I’m sure that some will still claim that walking is overrated.

Copyright 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]