The Self-Driving Carpocalypse
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
Or: Zombie Car Botnets are Just Around the Corner
Soon, we’ll have autonomous vehicles on the road, 100% without humans. Well, we already do, in some places. But I mean soon they will be ubiquitous.
At first, the impact of self-driving cars seems simple – “Hey, now I can eat Taco Bell while doing tight-quarters yoga in my car on the way to work… just like always, but now it’s safer because my car is driving for me! Wow!” Yes, it will let us spend commute time doing things we need to do, like Reddit. And cars will go from being your friendly neighborhood deathtrap to an incredibly safe mode of transport. But when you dig deeper, you begin to uncover a colorful palette of ways self-driving cars will paint the world a new face – they will become your errand slaves, they will spend money for you (and make it), they will take you places while you sleep at night, they’ll develop their own personalities, and they may even be running drug deals behind your back while you’re at the office.
This will all start one day when a strange feeling eases into your gut.
One day in the near future… you haven’t been actively driving – your car has. It has for over four years now. You were an early adopter, but recently all your friends have gotten self-driving cars or self-driving software updates on their existing compatible models. You wanted to get used to it before the government’s imposed deadline: December 31st 2027 – Death to Driving Day (D3-Day, as the media dubbed it) would be the last day that anyone would be allowed to drive manually. Just in time for everyone’s cars to escort their drunk owners home in the new year. On January 1st, 2028, every car’s software would switch off the ability for manual control (except emergencies, of course). Over 150 lives would be saved from drunk driving accidents just that night.
That strange feeling creeps higher into your chest, and as you look up at the cars in traffic around you, you realize that many of the cars on the highway are… empty. Totally empty. Nobody in the driver seat. Nobody in the passenger seat. Not the back. Hopefully nobody in the trunk (more on this one later). 100% Empty. Raptured to driverless heaven.
Where Have All the Drivers Gone?
One of the coolest and perhaps most overlooked results of having self-driving cars is that you don’t have to be in them. In fact, there will be times when many of the cars on the road are passenger free. But why? Because…
They can drop you off and park themselves! You never have to be in a car again when it parks. Save yourself that strenuous walk across the parking lot to the Denny’s!
When it’s time to leave wherever you are, they will meet you outside. Just summon them with your app or create a schedule for them.
Trips to pick up/drop off “friends” at the airport or anywhere else get a whole lot easier. You just don’t have to go. Send them in your car, and your car will return to you like a homing pigeon.
Maybe you want to go somewhere and not pay for parking – a museum, a show, the airport again? Fine. Just drive there and tell your car to take itself back home. Maybe put it in auto-cab mode so it could drive someone on the way (which would help pay for whatever you’re doing!).
Want your parents to visit but they don’t have a car? Just send yours.
If your family members are all on different schedules, you can all share one car! Have it drop you off, and send it for the next person.
Valet’s Hate Them! (You’ll never believe number 5.) Yeah, valets may actually hate self-driving cars, or as they call them, “self-parking job thieves.” But, would you rather trust a coked-out sleepless teen who likes to drive fast in strangers’ sweet rides, or your car’s Exaflop Deep Neural Net AI? …? Thought so.
Uber Drivers Love Them! Or… maybe not.
You might think Uber and Lyft drivers would be out of a job because Uber and Lyft won’t need drivers. Well, you’re kinda right – Uber already has an order in with Mercedes for 100,000 autonomous S-Class sedans for the year 2020.
Telsa, however, is years ahead in the game here with the best AI and biggest fleet-in-waiting, already planning a business around letting you send out your own car to cheat on you with other people who need rides, and you will get to split the fare: Tesla takes 30%, you keep the rest. Elon Musk predicts you could earn up to $30K/year, and your Tesla would quickly pay off its cost and turn into a business asset built to last 1 Million miles and generate $300K in its target lifetime. Whomever wins this “robotaxi” business model will be swimming in cash – it’s incredibly scalable because cars are potential riders are everywhere, it has less overhead than Uber or Lyft, and almost anyone with a car is a potential host. Bloomberg reports it could be worth $2 Trillion by 2030.
Your Car as an Errand Boy
Maybe you don’t want to lend your car out to strangers. But why have it sit idle when it could be doing chores for you? By the year 2030, it is estimated that over 400 million cars will feature smart “Internet of Things” applications. Cars will know how to do all of the following, and services will be updated to handle “V2R” (vehicle-to-retail) interactions:
Get a car wash.
Fill up their batteries at a quick-charge station.
Drop off/pick up your dry cleaning.
Grab lunch for you at a drive through or restaurant curb. (And maybe make some money fulfilling another Door Dash order on the way.)
Get itself serviced – oil change, tires, fluids, etc. The works!
In fact, some of these things, like getting a car wash or quick-charge won’t require a person on the other end of the transaction. That means your car can do this in the middle of the night at the Wash & Charge “ghost station” (a station with no employees at night, yet it’s fully operational). Your car can even decide when to do this on its own, so you never have to think about it. You might forget what charging your car even means.
This really adds more meaning to the term auto-mobile.
But then ask yourself if you really care how clean your car is if nobody will really be looking at you in it. Either you won’t be in it, or when you are, everyone else will be too busy not driving to pay attention.
Show Me the Money
To run all these errands and take care of itself, your car will be able to spend money. You’ll give it an Apple Pay, Google Wallet, or Easy Pass allowance (more allowance than you trust your kid with), and it will spend wisely. With its V2R connection, it will have a near instantaneous auction with nearby charging stations to find the absolute cheapest & quickest resource for energy, even knowing the lines in advance.
But that’s not the best part. This is: your car will keep track of how much battery you use, and if you are willing, it will decide the best peak times during the day to sell its surplus back into the grid to net you cash (if it’s not out shuttling people around for fares). Nissan suggested their Leaf owners stood to make over $1000 / year selling energy back into the grid. Your car becomes an automatic trader, a literal power broker, buying low and selling high. Or generating its own energy to sell via solar.
Wait, So Who’s Controlling My Car?
Your car won’t just be driving itself. It will be part of a complex system with the other cars on the road as they all communicate with the V2I (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure) network, which is an “internet of cars,” that also includes all the computers, roadside network access points, server farms, and so on that arrange these vehicles into a coordinated, harmonious system.
The first autonomous cars will be individuals: fending for themselves, trying to predict what the other vehicles will do, but never knowing for sure. Once all vehicles are autonomous and the V2I system turns on, the cars are no longer individuals. They will be a hive mind, a single superorganism that can move and coordinate as one, and this will allow incredible things to happen – like rows of cars speeding up or slowing simultaneously to optimize travel and eliminate the curse of stop & go traffic.
According to Intelligent Transportation Systems, a branch of the Department of Transportation, the V2I network will handle:
roadway departure prevention
transit safety and operations
commercial vehicle enforcement and operations
at-grade rail crossing operations
priority assignment for emergency vehicles
And that’s just the beginning. It will be also be able to divert entire veins of traffic to ensure efficient travel times. It will be able to send help to cars that have problems before even the passenger (if any) recognizes a problem. And it will enforce laws.
In fact, this system won’t let you switch to manual in an autonomous-only zone without first alerting the authorities and having them okay the override for whatever emergency you are in.
Every Car is an Ambulance
If you are in an emergency, your care can rush you to the hospital at blinding speeds, totally safely, and the hive mind of the V2I network will make sure traffic parts for you before anyone can even see you coming.
Hospitals will develop protocol for handling autonomous cars that roll up to the Emergency Entrance to deliver a patient in-need.
One of the greatest boons of autonomous cars is that drunk driving disappears, along with all the future anguish, pain, and sadness it causes.
Why am I always the one…
On the lighter side of things: nobody has to worry about designated drivers. Your car is your designated driver. And it’s your new best friend, because it can take you on incredible pub crawls – you don’t have to remember where you are going, it’s all pre-programmed. Just hop in after each bar, and you’ll eventually get home. Gone are the times you showed the cab the address on your license only to realize when you arrived it was you old address 3 states over.
Safety & Accidents
With entire cities and suburbs driving autonomously, accidents will plummet. We already know Google’s self-driving cars are “ridiculously safe,” due to their vision systems. Take that further: when all cars are autonomous, the hive mind of cars will be able to wirelessly communicate their intents and movements, which will reduce accidents drastically.
Samsung will also need to take its road-projection-screens off the backs of trucks because in this new world where AI is run by vision, they will turn from safety feature to potential AI-tricking hazard.
McKinsey & Company put out a report that estimates a 90% reduction in accidents, which would save 300,000 lives in America every decade, and points out that the US economy alone loses over $200 billion per year to roadway accidents.
It’s too early to know for sure, but that may be an underestimate, and as self-driving technology improves, accidents may all but hit zero. This is the reason why hacking your car to drive manually when the network (and laws) forbid it may be treated as a felony.
In the event that there is an accident, the V2I controller will automatically part traffic for emergency vehicles, and response time will be the best we’ve ever seen.
Meanwhile, laws about seatbelts will be slowly be relaxed as accident rates approach zero, and as the dire necessity to perform yoga during your commute approaches 100%. Or so.
The Dead Passenger Problem
Now, if someone dies behind the wheel, it causes an accident. Autonomous cars may be able to detect a problem (if you don’t alert it yourself) and change course to speed to a hospital. Or occasionally, when things don’t work out that well, a car will just roll up to its destination, and a dead person will flop out. DOA. It will happen sometimes.
Say Goodbye to Car Insurance
It’s hard to be interesting when talking about car insurance, so, TL;DR: 90-99% fewer accidents = 90-99% lower premiums = 90-99% fewer car insurance jobs.
Before the industry implodes, the purpose of insurance will shift. Since car owners won’t be driving, they won’t be liable. The manufacturers and technicians will be. So they’ll have some insurance. And in a desperate act to save itself, the insurance industry will still try to sell insurance to car owners to cover dwindling cases of theft, inclement weather damage, repair, and – I don’t know – acts of God.
Inside the Autonomous Car
The internals of cars will change to primarily serve relaxation, comfort, and recreation. Car design will focus less on safety, and more on making the consumer say, “Holy crap, I want to ride in there!” We can expect:
Lighter weight cars that save on energy
Large screen TVs and wireless access (to use up that new energy surplus)
Seats that convert to beds
Luxury cars that internally mimic limousines
More storage (for books, games, food, etc – to serve increased recreational use)
Black-Out Shades (shades that cover all windows and windshields to block all light, so you can watch movies or sleep in near dark; however, this makes some people roadsick)
And a whole fleet of robotaxis with cars designed for specific purposes. Order yourself the movie cab, the drinking taxi, the snackmobile, the sleeper shuttle.
Some cars will be designed as autonomous-only, and will do away with clutter like steering wheel, gas & brake pedals, gear shifts, even windshield wipers that cater to old fashioned passengers that want to occasionally putter around on private property. But don’t worry – there will be ways to manually move your car if needed via the on-screen interface. That can’t be any harder to control than Flappy Bird.
Speed Limits Diverge
Speed limits are going to split and diverge. There will be a manual speed limit, and an autonomous speed limit.
The manual speed limit is going to decrease as people become less used to driving manually (and more fearful of other people doing it). And generally, manual driving will be illegal anyway, except in emergencies, on private property, and in some low population and country areas that will be hard to come by. Eventually, any concept of “manual speed limit” will disappear.
The national autonomous speed limit will slowly creep up from the limits we’re used to. It won’t have to be posted, either. The cool part is that it will be kept as part of the V2I system, and will be orchestrated in real-time to affect ideal traffic flow. The system might allow 100 MPH for cars early in the morning, but once rush hour starts filling up the highways, the system would slowly reduce the speed to a more normal 65-70 MPH. If there happens to be an accident or road obstruction, the system can send a wave of decreasing speed limits to ease cars into a gentle flow without creating the stop-and-go nightmares of today.
This isn’t much different from how Bird scooters automatically know the speed limit in any given city, or how they know where they aren’t supposed to operate at all.
Autonomous-only car lanes with much higher speeds will also show up during the transition.
Hey, Remember Traffic Lights?
Say goodbye to traffic lights. Autonomous cars don’t need them, and we don’t want them. There is a school of urban planning called “Shared Spaces” that already removes all traffic lights and street signs with the counterintuitive effect that it both decreases accidents as well as commute time. Drivers don’t need to wait at lights for unnecessary amounts of time, and they are more careful and aware at intersections. And there’s no more “let me gun it at the last minute to make this light.”
Autonomous cars can take this design one step further because they can coordinate on the fly near instantaneously. Cars going through intersections will look more like 2 schools of fish passing through or around each other, occasionally stopping or slowing as necessary. It may look like a faster and more fluid version of this Saigon intersection.
Although cars will have to stop less often at intersections, there will still be regular walk signals for pedestrians. At intersections where crossing signals don’t exist, pedestrians will be able to walk across the street safely, basically throwing themselves into traffic. Again, it may be similar to Vietnam, where the pedestrian is under obligation to walk at somewhat constant, predictable speed, and the motorist is under contract to avoid the pedestrian. Even though autonomous cars will be able to weave around you safely, they’ll likely be programmed to stop because it will feel safer.
The 3D Road Network
Things get even better when you consider that the road network is going to start expanding downward, into stacks of tunnels. With no potential obstacles, self-driving cars will travel through them at blinding speeds. Watch this example from Elon Musk’s The Boring Company.
Imagine a road trip where you sleep in the car each night while it’s driving, and you wake up in a new destination every morning, ready for you to hop out and enjoy the town, or the beach, the attractions, the views.
You could play what I call “Road Trip Roulette” – tell your car how long you want the road trip to be, your general interests, and see where it takes you.
If you have a specific itinerary, be careful to enter it accurately. You don’t want to type in “Grandma’s House” in Rock Creek and not notice until you wake up the next morning that it got autocorrected to “Grand Moe’s Hosiery” in North Dakota. This new ease in road trips will keep families closer. The hardest part about visiting family (other than dealing with them) is the travel. Imagine your kid in college. You’re in Connecticut, he’s in Maine for cripes’ sake:
Old Trip: Wake up at 6 AM on Saturday. Drive 6 hours there. Spend 5 hours quality time together. Drive 6 hours to arrive home at 11 PM. That’s 12 hours just driving for 5 hours of time with your kid.
New Trip: Don’t fully wake up at 6 AM. Instead, just walk with your eyes still shut to the car while not stepping on the cats. Keep sleeping in the car. Wake up when it blasts Don’t Stop Believin’ to signal your arrival four short hours later. Spend 8 hours together, lunch, dinner, beers, etc. Leave at 8 PM, rage watch 5 episodes of Game of Thrones on your car’s widescreen with the blackout shades drawn, then fall asleep for a power nap the last hour of the drive, and wake up at home around midnight.The new way sounds better to me. Who wouldn’t be more likely to visit friends and family in this future?
Subsequently, plane ticket sales decline mildly because road trips become so freaking fun.
RVs will spike in popularity. They become truly “Mobile Homes.” They will be a convenient way to live without having to pay rent or a mortgage. Your RV can charge during the day, and drive nomadically during the night. You could visit a different town or city each day for the rest of your life, and never have to take the time to drive there yourself.
Some people already live like nomads in their RVs, but now this is much more appealing and feasible. Anyone that can work from a home office could now work from an RV to secure an income (instead of spending that time driving) and could see the world at the same time, all while saving large amounts of money that would otherwise go to mortgage or rent.
Suddenly, you won’t have to worry about parking. Not only because your car will drop you off, park itself, then pick you up – but also because of how cars will park themselves when they are all autonomous and can all communicate.
Sure, your car could circle the block for hours in San Francisco. But it won’t have to, because there will be freakishly ample parking. Here’s why:
When cars without drivers park themselves, they don’t need to worry about opening doors. So they can pack themselves in tight and save ~15% more space.
They can also park multiple cars deep and self-coordinate via the hive-mind. No longer does that valet have to move 3 cars to get to yours. Every blocking car turns on at the same time and eases out to create a path.
Your car will also search much further for parking than you would. You like to park within a block or two, but your car doesn’t care if it parks 20 blocks away.
Fewer cars are parking themselves, anyway, because more people have switched from owning a car to using autonomous ride services, and many of the rest are running those ride services by sending their cars out instead of parking them. In general, cars will be on the road much more.
Meters, Tickets, & Parking Spaces
Sorry to those of you who like to collect parking tickets. Tickets will be almost impossible, because your car will either pay for itself, move when time is up, or it won’t be allowed to park in the first place.
The different meters and space designations we have will change. You won’t have 20 minute parking, 1 hour parking, 2 hour parking, time windows, etc. You’ll just have these:
General Parking Space (paid or unpaid)
Large Drop-Off / Pick Up Areas or Spaces
Reserved Spaces (authorities, etc)
No handicapped spots?! No, they are unnecessary. Large drop-off areas will easily accommodate handicapped passengers.
All the other various spaces we are used to get collapsed into a “general” space because all the regulations only served to make sure enough people could visit enough businesses. And if a city official thinks your car has been in a spot too long, they’ll push a few buttons to communicate with your car, and have it move itself. That mostly won’t matter, because people will stop caring about getting close parking, as long as their cars are waiting for them when they need them.
The Best Side Effect of Ubiquitous Autonomous Cars
Road rage disappears in its tracks. Gone. No more axe vs. bat encounters. Utterly, completely, gloriously gone.
When you look out the car window and see someone in the car next to you, you’ll smile. You might even wave at this fleeting next-car neighbor, because you’re both happy – you’re just each having your own little party in your car, enjoying the recreational time while it lasts.
With no road rage, the average global stress level decreases. People arrive at work happier, causing higher productivity. The additional productivity and happier mindset tip the scales of innovation, and we simultaneously cure cancer, end global climate change, and distribute fleets of autonomous food trucks to end world hunger. Overjoyed by these strides, the world powers unite in peace, and all wars end. As one mind, we are able to develop interstellar travel and populate the far reaches of the universe, sowing utopian civilizations throughout.
All because we end the vice of road rage. It’s holding humanity back.
I, for one, welcome a world of autonomous cars.
I will embrace our salvation.
The Last Driving Generation
One day, my 3 year old asked me why he couldn’t drive, and I said, “Because you’re too young.” But there’s a chance what I should have said is, “You’ll never be able to drive because by the time you’re 17, nobody will be allowed.”
It’s inevitable that eventually all manual driving will be disallowed for civilians. There is a generation that will be the final set of manual drivers the world will ever see. One year, of-age teenagers will be taking driver exams, getting their licenses, and driving like Neanderthals trapped in cars full of angry wasps. Then the next year, that pleasantness will all be gone.
It won’t be a smooth transition. At first, we’ll insist that everyone still gets a license in case they need to take control – what if there’s an emergency? What if the car decides to floor it toward a building with a road painted on it? Then we’ll learn that was a terrible mistake. Kids who get licenses but barely ever drive will have zero instinct in the rare situations they will need it, and they’ll be killing themselves in accidents left and right. Imagine if you took a guy who’d only ever shaved with an electric razor (and rarely, at that), and then while he’s spacing out on his phone you shove a straight razor into his hand, and scream, “OH MY GOD QUICK SHAVE YOUR WHOLE BEARD WITH THIS IN THE NEXT 10 SECONDS OR WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE AHHHHH!!!!!” It’s basically the same scenario.
So strict manual-driving laws will get more strict, and take away all autonomy from drivers. The most we’ll get is an emergency stop button. Yup. A big, red button.
Sending Your 7-Year-Old to Buy Milk
By the way, kids can now take cars whenever they feel like it. Solo-rider age will be relatively young, about 7 years old. Those same kids will be impressed that we ever knew how to drive a real car. The kids will consider this while playing Mario Kart in an autonomous car that just picked them up from school.
Maybe one day you’ll take your kid to the track to show them how it was done in the old days, back in the 2010s.
Law enforcement is happy, because car chases just got a lot easier. Autonomous police vehicles will be scary good at running down victims:
A criminal has an old, hacked car on manual override, and is trying to escape.
All the autonomous cars on the highway have no trouble getting out of the way for the cop car to safely go 110 MPH to catch up.
Then the officer sends a signal to the V2I network to commandeer nearby empty robotaxis, and 6 of them respond nearby, and box in the criminal, slowing to a halt.
The criminal hops out of his car, vaults over a robotaxi, and runs off the side of the highway.
Fine. The cop flips a switch in his car, and releases a hunter drone from the rear dock on the car, and it has no trouble staying on top of the criminal.
They Are Watching...
Even before cars are fully autonomous, they are being built equipped with arrays of cameras and intelligent systems for recognizing cars, humans, obstacles, and so on. There are already hundreds of thousands of cars on the streets loaded with such systems.
The ways law enforcement will be able to use these systems is radical.
Right now, law enforcement relies on traffic cams to try and track criminals and understand crimes. Cars will soon be treated like a mobile “neighborhood watch” system, and police will be able to access their video feeds and histories. Why get a grainy view from a traffic cam down the block when you can get the feed of a car that was 15 feet away?
Now think of Amber Alerts. When you get sent an Amber Alert on your phone, you can’t do much with it, and chances are you aren’t near a street. Imagine, now, that instead of just going to your phone, an Amber Alert gets sent to the CPUs of all cars equipped with cameras and recognition technology. Hundreds of thousands, soon to be millions of cars looking around automatically for a recognizable license plate or car. It will increase the chances of success by an incredible degree, and the cars will be able to respond to the authorities with a precise location and visual evidence on the fly.
We will apply this to other types of criminals as well, and missing persons. As long as the cars have some visual data and descriptions to match, they will be ever vigilant, protecting the streets for us.
Super Car Thieves
Run-of-the-mill car thieves will die off, because stealing an autonomous car is nearly impossible for the average criminal. Especially when in Sentry Mode.
The best thieves will be the ones that can hack a car remotely to steal control of it, like this demonstration of hacking a car to stop it remotely on the highway. What could be more convenient than having all your favorite cars deliver themselves to your chop shop? Or maybe you remotely hack supercars to present themselves to your high profile clients with only one pit stop along the way to have tracking removed and the car’s electronic identity changed.
Zombie Car Botnets
When any computer resource is ubiquitous and profitable enough, it becomes a target for hacking. It happened to computers. It will happen to cars. It will be incredibly scary when it happens to cars.
The mob could carry out hits by having autonomous vehicles target their marks. Maybe hack the mark’s own car, and have it do the job by driving off a bridge, hitting a building at high speed, or just keeping the doors locked and driving into the middle of the desert. Or perhaps it will borrow your car to do the job, while your car is in auto-taxi mode. Maybe the car will be programmed to wait until the mark asks for a ride from the network, and the car arrives at 90 MPH and doesn’t slow down. Hit and run.
Once organized crime has their hackers get control of the car network, it could create a Zombie Botnet of cars that could serve all its needs. Your car might be part of the botnet and you’d never know it. You’d think your car was just parked while you were at work, but it was actually delivering drugs, and then a body, to god knows where. When you checked on its location during the day, it projected confidently that it was parked down the street. But where’d that bullet hole come from? Lies. All lies.
Then, one day when a government – a particularly corrupt and irascible one – is feeling upset at us, they might decide to release a Crash Worm. Yeah, there are no more physical car crashes, but they can crash all of our systems. All the cars just die. That’s their test run. Next time they won’t be so nice. Next time they replace every car’s AI algorithm with one that’s mostly the same, but that has a Trojan function to, on one coordinated day in the future, accelerate to top speed and disable turning and breaking. Every car does this at the same time.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. iPhones are still relatively safe from viruses and hacking, so let’s cross our fingers that our cars will be, too.
The world of autonomous vehicles will be exciting, liberating, time-saving, and make the world feel like quite a different place. Hope to see you there! I’ll be waving from the yoga car next to you on the highway, Taco-Bell in-hand.