The news that gravitational waves were discovered, as well as wrinkles in the space time continuum, was big news in my family. Of course, we knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when.
I have 11 and 13 year old daughters. Whenever we drive somewhere, we carry out what Einstein called “thought experiments”.
They will come up with scientific questions, and I then direct them into finding their own answers through a series of prodding and hopeful questions. It is much like how the children of royalty were tutored during the Middle Ages.
So they asked, “When will we get driverless cars?” which they had heard about on TV. I answered “in about two years, but that I had friends who run Tesla (TSLA) who already have them now.”
And you know the interesting thing Tesla discovered? After two years of beta testing, the cars are starting to develop their own personalities.
Each car has highly advanced learning software. When the mapping software requires one to take a difficult sharp left turn, the vehicle may miss it the first time. It will then make the next legal U turn, and nail that left turn every time in the future.
The cars are all programmed to drive like little old ladies. It will never speed, break the law, and always allows other cars to cut in. Over time, some are becoming more cautious, while others are getting more aggressive depending on each individual’s driving experience. In other words, experience is turning them into “people”.
I asked, “What would the world be like if everyone had driverless cars?” This event will occur in about 30 years, or during my daughters’ middle age. They pondered for a moment. Then my older daughter shouted out, “There won’t be car accidents anymore!”
“Right!” I answered. “But what will that mean?” They puzzled over this. A few seconds passed. Then it came. “The people who fix cars won’t have anything to do!”
“You got it,” I replied. In fact, about 1 million people in the car repair industry will lose their jobs. A small group of vintage car specialists will survive, much like horse and buggy hobbyists do today.
I pointed out that this is already happening because electric cars don’t require any maintenance. You just rotate the tires every 6,000 miles (because electric batteries are so heavy).
I moved on. “Who else will lose their jobs when cars become self driving?” They hit a brick wall. Then I asked “What else breaks when cars have accidents?” A few seconds later it came. “People!”
“For sure”, I shot back. Actually, about 35,000 people a year die in car accidents every year in the United States, and another 500,000 are injured. This means the demand for doctors, hospitals, and ambulances will go down. Say goodbye to another 1 million jobs.
“So, what else will self driving cars do?” I was relentless.
My older girl was first. “If cars are driven by computers, it means they can drive closer together.” I said “That was true, but what was the consequence of that?”
The mountain scenery whizzed by. Then they got it. “There won’t be traffic jams anymore.”
“Yes!” I blurted out. If a car can drive 70 miles per hour, but only needs to remain one car length behind the one in front of it, that effectively increases the capacity of freeways seven times.
We will never need to build another freeway again. Another 1 million jobs go down the drain.
“What else will self driving cars do?” I carried on. They hit a dead end. So I gave a hint. “What do you see in cities?”
After going through buildings, parks, roads, lots of cars, and bridges, I finally got the answer I wanted: “Parking lots.” I then posed the conundrum,” What’s the connection between self driving cars and parking lots?” Now they were getting into the spirit of the thing. “They won’t need them.”
I replied “Absolutely.” Self-driving cars won’t need to park. They’ll just be able to drop you off and drive around the block until you are ready to go home. This will be economical because after three decades of battery and solar improvements, energy will effectively be free, like air is today.
Oh, and at least 100,000 parking attendants might as well start joining the unemployment lines now.
It gets better. Entrepreneurs are now developing apps for cars so they never need to park.
In an iteration of the sharing economy, and in a club or membership type format, your car will just drive from person to person, selling rides, until you are ready to go home. Think of it as Uber, without the drivers, that pays you.
Today, parking lots occupy about 15% of the land area of large cities. Self-driving cars will free up a lot of that space for other uses, like housing and parks.
Then I asked the really big question. What do all of these changes have in common? My 11 year old picked up on this immediately. “A lot of people are going to lose their jobs!”
“For sure,” I bubbled. Notice that every new technological improvement creates a lot of job losses. I went on.
“The trick for you girls is to always stay ahead of the technology curve so your job doesn’t get lost too.” This is why I have been sending them to Java development school since they were eight and nine.
They look daunted. And this is what 11 and 13 year olds were able to figure out. Granted, they are MY kids.
Imagine what Google (GOOGL), Apple (AAPL), and Tesla (TSLA) are doing with this idea. It has become a hot button “next big thing”. Silicon Valley is now rife with rumors of breakthrough developments and the poaching of staff.
The US military and DARPA are involved in self driving vehicles in a big way as well, holding regular contests with big prize money and the prospect of mammoth government contracts. More and more generals and admirals are telling me that the wars of the future will be fought with software.
The bottom line is that things are happening much faster than we imagined possible only a few years ago.
Then my oldest daughter piped up. “Dad, can I get my driver’s license before all the cars are self driving?” I said “Sure”.
“What kind of car do you want?” I asked. “A red one.” she replied.
On our next trip we will cover gravitational waves, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the significance of the clock tower in Berne, Switzerland.
By the way, these girls will be graduating from college in 2026 and 2027 and will be looking for jobs. Just let me know.