3 ways we'll leapfrog distance and reduce climate change

When your car is really just your mobile office, 4 hour exurban commutes may be the norm (credit Regus corp)

Auto-drive cars have been on the cusp of reality for almost a decade now.  Google has been testing out a self-driving system for several years and mainstream automakers like Hyundai and Toyota are slowly inching their way to “autopilot” subsystems that can take over many of the driving tasks.  While full automation is still not a feature you can buy - it will be soon, and this has deep implications for transport in general and how we live our lives.  

Urban sprawl and the invention of the freeway had a big impact on cities like Los Angeles (Credit: Wikimedia)

Urban sprawl is a concept that came with the invention of the modern freeway.  In major cities like Los Angeles, high-speed  multi-lane motorways led to people living farther away from where they work.  It’s also a major contributor to vehicle emissions and climate change.   Sprawl led to the coining of the neologism  “the suburbs”, and with it, a vast number of cultural changes too– shopping malls, supermarkets, fast food and more.

Although we don’t know exactly what cultural changes fully self-driving cars will create, we can take some educated guesses on how autodrive will help us leapfrog the tyranny of distance:

  • Welcome to ‘exurban sprawl’- imagine your car as a mobile office, with a desk and comfy chairs – why worry about a four hour commute when your car is really just an extension of your home and office?  This may lead to commuters living far away in the country and commuting daily over what would be unimaginable distance for a human driver.  While at first this may seem like a backwards leap from a CO2 emission perspective– expect these types of self-driving offices to be paired with electric motors – the latest version of the Tesla does just that. 


  • A decline in commuter airlines- although commercial airlines consume vast quantities of fossil fuel, this has to be divided against the number of passengers a jumbo jet carries.  These days, commercial airlines are engines of economic efficiency and rarely fly with an empty seat.  It’s surprising and counterintuitive then that a packed jet flight is generally better for our environment than driving, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan. 

    Taken from Making driving less energy intensive than flying - Sivak, Michael 2014-01

    Regardless of the carbon impact, people may choose to drive instead of fly for increased comfort and cost. Expect a 12 hour road trip to be done overnight - with chairs that fully recline into lay-flat beds while the autopilot takes over.   And although a family car’s footprint is currently bigger– this formula may radically change once the majority of cars are fully electric.  It’s unlikely that jumbo jets, with their intense energy needs and battery weight restrictions could easily convert to an all-electric model in the near future.  

  • Decline in private car ownership – many futurists think this is the real endgame of self-driving cars.  Why bother owning one at all when cheap, electric driverless taxis may be hailed from any location to drop you off?  This seems to be an avenue that Google is exploring with its low-speed prototype pods that don’t even have a steering wheel.  

Google’s self-driving pods are similar to the “Johnny Cab” in the movie Total Recall (minus the creepy robot driver)  (Credit: TriStar Pictures)