Massive companies like Google, Volvo, Tesla, Ford and Uber are all investing a lot of energy into how the development of self-driving cars could change their businesses.
Google says it has logged more than two million kilometres of driverless testing in the US. Uber has been investigating the purchase of a whole fleet of autonomous vehicles.
Google predicts fully autonomous vehicles will be available to the public in just four years. Others may get there even earlier.
But it’s not just business models which will undergo significant change. Self-driving cars have the potential to change everyone’s lives in a big way - in fact, driverless vehicles could be the largest, most life-changing technological innovation since the smartphone.
Cheap taxi rides
Uber’s ride-sharing app - combined with a massive marketing push - has disrupted the taxi industry around the world, but that influence may pale in comparison to the effect of self-driving cars.
For all the success of Uber, the company still isn’t turning a profit. The biggest cost associated with a taxi journey or Uber ride is the driver’s wage. Without a driver to pay, costs would fall by as much as 85%.
A journey which currently costs $25 may fall to just $4 or $5.
This would have massive implications not only for the taxi industry, but also for car ownership and public transport.
A fleet of cheap, autonomous vehicles on the roads would reduce the cost effectiveness of individuals owning their own cars. Many in the auto industry are already planning for a shift, from selling cars to consumers to selling cars to fleet operators.
Governments will also face a challenge. Public transport – which may also become autonomous – would have to become far cheaper, or even free, to remain competitive.
Whatever happens, the benefit for commuters will be massive. Large amounts of cash saved from having to buy a car, no more petrol costs, and no more servicing or insurance fees.
If you don’t have to drive a car, you don’t have to be sober.
Whether you catch a driverless taxi or ping your own car to come round and pick you up, random breath testing could be a thing of the past.
This will also give more freedom to children, people with disabilities and the elderly, whose ability to drive will no longer be a barrier to operating a car. Your car can pick the kids up from school without you in it.
More importantly, removing human error – the primary cause of road accidents – will save lives. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.24 million people a year die in road accidents. The advent of self-driving cars could see that number fall for the very first time.
Never park again
If you do still own a car, you may never have to park it again.
A range of studies estimate that anything from 10-30% of city traffic consists of people looking for a car space. That changes when cars can park themselves.
Not only can your car drop you off at your destination and then search for a parking spot on its own, parking itself will become more efficient.
A solo self-driving car doesn’t have to leave room for drivers and passengers to exit, which McKinsey estimates means car spaces can be 15% closer together.
More time for everything
Perhaps one of the best things about driverless cars is the amount of time it will free up for people.
A 1956 Advertorial in Boy’s Life magazine shows an image of a family in an autonomous car playing dominos, a young boy folding a paper airplane.
According to a 2011 report by AMP, Australians spend an average of 4.4 hours a week commuting to and from work. Almost an hour a day.
If your car can drive itself, then that’s time which could be spent working, reading, watching Netflix or playing dominoes with the family.
Traffic too may be a thing of the past, since if every car is driverless then following distances could be reduced and traffic lights could be ditched in favour of automated peer-to-peer communication between cars.
Autonomous vehicles may also make the car more competitive to long distance competitors, such as air and rail.
“You could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination,” Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk told Bloomberg.