Driverless Cars Could Make Transportation Free, But Who Will Pay?

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Autonomous vehicles (AV) were all the rage this year, and we bet they will be the main topic of 2018. As much as we’ve covered the technicality of the AV challenge, we’re even more interested in the socioeconomic backbone of the technology. How will society coordinate self-driving cars and who exactly will pay for it all?

AV certainly holds a lot of potential — most of all, liberating us from mind-numbing hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic and loss of productivity (admittedly, we’ll still have the traffic, but we won’t have to be behind the wheel and focused on the road). Imagine a clean energy car you can drive like normal if you wish but at the first hint of a traffic jam press a button to have the car go into its self-driving mode? Well, that’s exciting to us. We only hope carmakers will give the option to do both.

But as great as all that is, who exactly will pay for self-driving cars? Who will coordinate them? Who will buy the EVs? Everyone welcomes a free lunch and a free beer but someone has to foot the bill.

What the Internet has become today can give us a hint.

Today’s Internet is a far cry from that of the ’90s and early 2000s when little independent sites could become big. Who remembers reading ArsTechnica back then? I do. Today’s Internet is very different than back then. It’s mostly held in the claws of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and a few other behind-the-scenes big players. Popular blogs are now often owned by giant mass media companies. They regulate and dictate how business is done online. It’s no wonder politicians came up with net neutrality, but such a shame that another political team came in and removed it, legalizing a cyber grab that puts the Internet into the hands of a few ginormous corporations. Will the fate of driverless cars be the same? Will only a handful of corporations dictate how we use them, where, and when?

The Atlantic sheds some light on that. And although the low-hanging fruits are easy to spot — more business, more spending — theories are a little thin and depend on hopes that consumers will continue to shop and will have their shopping patterns influenced by the self-driving vehicles they ride in.

In the 1950s, wild French writer and musician Boris Vian wrote a short story extrapolating on the future of urban mobility. The answer was simple. All cars will be open to everyone with a tip jar. Drive and leave it anywhere, just put some money in the can. When the car runs low on fuel, fill it up. Simple, no? Except we’re living in different times. Could everyone hold themselves accountable and follow such a system honorably?

The Atlantic digs in further. Need to go somewhere? OK, but where and to do what? With that in mind, it writes: “Picture a not-too-distant future where a trip across town is available to anyone who will spend 15 minutes in McDonald’s on the way. Not a fast-food fan? Then for you, it’s Starbucks, a bookstore, the game parlor. Rides with a child stop at the Disney store, while teenage girls are routed via next decade’s version of Zara and H&M. Unlike today’s UberPool, with its roundabout routes and multiple passenger pickups, ‘UberFree’ features tailor-made routes and thoughtfully targeted stops.”

Destination-sponsored mobility is attractive, but at what price will it come? Considering how our Internet is dictated by a handful of corporations, how our US politics are dictated by corporations and their representatives, it makes us wonder.

An ethnographer’s dream come true, your very first thought of the day would determine where you go and who would offer that ride to you. All of that would be sponsored by businesses willing to pay to drive you across town. But what happens to online shops? Are we going to see online companies building brick and mortar shops next? After all, Amazon copied what Sears did nearly a century ago and applied it to the Internet age. Now the online giant powerhouse delivers to your home.

And what about politics? What happens at election time when a candidate and his party “route voters through run-down areas while a voice-over blames the opponent for this decline?” Feeling cold, you could be brought to the front of clothes stores. Feet hurt? Why, here are some fine shops from our special shoe sponsors. Feeling hungry? Well, here are a few restaurants brought to you by our sponsors.

By that time, we’ll have an overly friendly artificial intelligence (AI) connected to all our devices making sure we’ll get all the sponsored solutions. Buy, buy, buy, more, more, more! The economy needs your support. Spend, spend, spend!

Fisker Autonomous Driving Shuttle

Self-Driving Cars For You, Made For You, Just For You

But things shouldn’t have to be so consumer-spending infested. Shouldn’t people be able to use such services and be allowed to pay directly for them instead of facing the drill above? We hope so. After all, corporations haven’t shown they can self-regulate with high ethics. Maybe they should take a look at what Silicon Valley Ethics Roundtable is trying to do.

And if you think we’re exaggerating, check out Kickback, an app that tells you how much Las Vegas taxis get paid to steer you to certain businesses.

Who Pays For A Free Lunch?

There’s no silver-bullet answer to this problem. Consumers are going to need to educate themselves and remember to vote with their wallets. Ease of use should make us ask: “Do I really need that?” and “How much am I will to pay for it and how much am I willing to let go of in order to get it for free?” Oh, and by the way, who manages this service? Who decides what is confidential and what isn’t? And how can that be changed for legal purposes without my consent? Who decides I take this route and not that more scenic one?

Those are only some of the questions we need to ask ourselves as we embark on another “free ride” filled with goodies and things we never knew we needed. Technology can free us from some of the constraints of modern-day traffic jams. But we’ll need to brush up on our history and wisen up to know what we really need and don’t need within the greater scope of our civilization’s purpose.

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Nicolas Zart

Nicolas was born and raised around classic cars of the 1920s, but it wasn't until he drove an AC Propulsion eBox and a Tesla Roadster that the light went on. Ever since he has produced green mobility content on various CleanTech outlets since 2007 and found his home on CleanTechnica. He grew up in an international environment and his communication passion led to cover electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, renewable energy, test drives, podcasts, shoot pictures, and film for various international outlets in print and online. Nicolas offers an in-depth look at the e-mobility world through interviews and the many contacts he has forged in those industries. His favorite taglines are: "There are more solutions than obstacles." and "Yesterday's Future Now"

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