How self-driving cars could make everything worse, and what to do about it

The promise of self-driving cars is to take our vehicle fleets from 5% utilization to near-100% utilization, reducing congestion, parking problems, emissions and road accidents. But what if the cheapest way to "park" your autonomous vehicle is to have it endlessly circle the block while you're at work? What do we do about the lost jobs of bus-, truck- and cab-drivers? How will we pay for roads if gas-tax revenues plummet thanks to all-electric fleets?

Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase raises these and other extremely plausible problems and offers extremely plausible solutions to them -- but the catch will be to implement these solutions before the problems arise, rather than waiting until the damage has been done.

We’ll rethink labor security and how we tax income. The unemployment of professional drivers outlined in our hellish scenario will come about no matter what happens. And it won’t only be drivers who lose jobs. As personal car owners switch from owning a vehicle they use just 5 percent of the time and costs them 18 percent of their income to being driven for a fraction of that price, we’ll see lay-offs in repairs and maintenance, and car insurance, as well as car design and manufacturing (5.5 million jobs nationwide), sales (1.65 million work in dealerships), and distribution/logistics.

But once again, innovative planning will turn the problem into an opportunity for positive transformation. The cost and inaccessibility to transport has been found to be the largest barrier keeping people in poverty. Shared AVs have the potential to transform access to opportunity — jobs, education, healthcare, leisure. We’ll also have way fewer traffic deaths and injuries (up to 90 percent, so over 30,000 lives saved in the U.S. every year); greener and more livable cities; clean air; reduced CO2 emissions; more disposable income and more money spent locally. This goes a long way towards compensating for those lost jobs.

I’m not suggesting we abandon those workers stranded by the transformation. In the short run, we will cushion and support these workers who did nothing to merit the loss of their income and profession. I’m no expert on labor theory, but I do know that in a future where all sorts of automation will replace jobs, we need to make it easy and safe to have a diversified stream of income, a key to individual resilience. Easy: to hire and work part-time. Safe: all benefits — social security, paid vacation, catastrophic insurance, health care — follow a worker regardless of the number of hours he or she works. And we must eliminate loopholes that allow employers to pretend that such benefits are applicable only to full-time labor, no matter how configured.

Self-Driving Cars Will Improve Our Cities. If They Don’t Ruin Them. [Robin Chase/Backchannel]