How self-driving cars can help with six trends of American life

traffic chart from the Department of Transportation
Just think, with a self-driving car, you can tweet, email and surf the Web for 40 more hours per year.

The Department of Transportation’s 30 Year Framework for the Future takes on the problems of moving Americans around down the road (haha). Its “Blue Paper” on the topic offers all sorts of facts. A collection of them broadly looks at a number of social trends that need to inform transportation solutions. Here’s a summary of them, and ideas on how self-driving cars might lend a helping hand:

Moving more massive masses
By 2045, 390 million people will call the United States home. How will 70 million more people get around? With 70 million more individual cars inefficiently burning collective resources to move a human body from point A to point B? How about an intelligent self-driving car running around like a bus with a route customized to actual demand?

Grandpa and grandma
In 2045, America is going to be grayer. The number of people over 65 will increase 77 percent. Less our elderly friends whose health fails to decline, what about moving around those whose eyes break down, coordination falters and cognitive capacity decays? Artificial eyes may be on the way, but self-driving cars will likely arrive sooner and cost less.

Youngins and cars: Phlbbbt!
The USA contains 73 million people aged 18 to 34. Beyond the terrifying flood of selfies this population batters against our collective psyche, these youngsters are doing other things with their time, like ditching cars and embracing the Internet technology that they grew up with. These folks drove more than 20% fewer miles by the year 2010 than they did in 2000. Cars? Meh! Transportation is a service that self-driving will perfectly provide. Owning a 2,000-pound box that spends 95.8% of its time parked? Phlbbbt!

Why fix the policy decisions and questionable cultural shifts that led to one of the most economically unequal societies in the world when you can … not change a thing by making transportation cheaper!

Or so the report implies. Transportation, it informs us, is the second-largest household expense (housing is number one). Maybe cutting it down will help with a more uncomfortable statistic: 10% of the USA’s population claims one-third of the country’s national income.

If the destabilizing effect of that load imbalance doesn’t unnerve you, try on this one: The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%. Or how about this: The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth.

With that kind of economic disparity, our future transportation solutions will need to be unheralded sources of cost reduction, not incremental adjustments. Self-driving cars, little miracles of technology that they are, are probably helpless against such a behemoth of a social malfunction. Cute idea, though.

Sitting and waiting
An American spends an average of 40 hours stuck in traffic per year. Mysterious math tells us that congestion annually costs the country $121 billion. Self-driving cars to the rescue: interconnected robots on wheels will not only drive in a manner that reduces congestion, but have the info and ability to find routes that open up the roads for everyone — especially if they’re shared, an approach that the Internet enables. In Sweden, researchers estimated one shared car removed 14 other cars from the road during rush hour.

In America, 75% of the population lives in just 11 megaregions — swaths of the country with powerful ties around “transportation, economics and other factors.” Urban areas in the nation were home for 80.7% of the population in 2010. Such densely packed areas make car ownership more problematic, costly and inefficient. Self-driving cars that behave more like a massive, disconnected but inter-communicating, modular train system makes much more sense.

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