Not so fast. It’s not just about whether they can be made and work and are safe. It’s about a cultural shift that will have to take place before they are successfully sold.
Like anything that’s a significant part of our lives, there’s a culture around driving that isn’t just about whether it works or not. Apple watches work, but they’re hardly a must-have item, even for techies. Before driverless cars become ubiquitous, we’re going to have to change how we think about:
- Safety: It’s not just whether the cars are safe – tests say they are. But we’ll have to readjust our expectations of safety. Now when we get into an accident it’s either your fault or my fault. Even if accident rates are dramatically lower, who gets the blame when the inevitable injury or death happens? And let’s not even talk about the rethink of liability, insurance and premiums. Our expectations about safety are a cultural thing.
- Independence: Car culture is a celebration of our independence, our ability to go anywhere and choose how and in what manner we get there. With a car doing the driving, that thrill of independence and freedom will be diminished for some. Look at car ads and how they equate driving with freedom. How will manufacturers make self-driving cars sexy? On the other hand, for people who for whatever reason can’t drive – older or infirmed, for example – might see the driverless car as new independence.
- Transportation and Cities: Our traffic rules are written for cars with drivers. Driverless cars will change the ways cars behave and how they’re used. Uber wants self-driving cars for obvious reasons. If car transportation is on-demand, maybe fewer people will want to own cars. Cities might find the cars compete with public buses and subways and have to rethink public transportation and whether to invest in transit projects. Our need for parking might be drastically reduced. And we might be able to reduce the footprint of roads and parking lots in our cities.
Some of these changes in culture will be incremental and not obvious until they happen. Others – like how we feel about cars – will have to happen sooner.
So the challenge for Google and other driverless car companies isn’t just to build a vehicle that works, it’s to change the way we think about the culture of cars – safety and independence and transportation. And that’s not just a marketing issue, it’s a significant shift in our culture.