It’s been 60 years since the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine gave us the promise of flying cars. But our personal mobility options remain, today and for the foreseeable future, earthbound. Will the promise of self-driving cars be as elusive? In short, no. The dream of taking a road trip in which we pay more attention to a new book or movie than we do to the driving task is well within reach.
Still, we’re not there yet. And people are just beginning to ask a very important question: How might our nation’s roads and highways, and the driving done by we humans ourselves, need to change as autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous? As researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute who study many of the implications of self-driving cars, we find the answer in two important sets of realities – those we know, and those we don’t know.
Starting slowly, and in cities
For starters, we know that self-driving cars won’t become commonplace overnight. The vast majority of cars on the road now have no automation features or only very limited automation, like cruise control. You can find a few self-driving cars being tested on public roads now if you know where to look. But you won’t likely find many in a dealer showroom for at least 10 years.
Another factor that will further delay the widespread use of autonomous cars is that many people hang on to their cars as long as possible. The number of highly automated cars as a share of everything on the road will grow over time, but only relatively slowly.