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Transport / Mass transit

“A benefit to the US of more than $3trn per year”: How driverless cars will transform the economy

Self-driving cars, delivery drones, robotic chefs: living in Silicon Valley, you would think we were doing God’s work, delivering dazzling new technologies to a grateful world. Like missionaries convinced of their spiritual purity, the technorati have little patience for reality checks.

 The many benefits may outweigh the costs, but sometimes those costs fall disproportionately on groups ill-equipped to pay the price. Take autonomous vehicles (aka “self-driving cars”), for example. The economic, social, and environmental consequences  are difficult to overstate. According to the American Automobile Association, in 2013 the average car cost the owner $9,151 per year to drive fifteen thousand miles. The average family has two cars.

But new fleets of shared autonomous vehicles will reduce that cost by 75 per cent, saving nearly as much as that family currently spends on food – including eating out. According to a 2014 report in the MIT Technology Review, there’s a “potential financial benefit to the US on the order of more than $3trn per year”. That’s an incredible 19 per cent of current GDP.

This single innovation will transform the way we live. Why else are the founders of Silicon Valley companies like Google, Tesla and Uber investing so heavily in this new technology?

Then there’s the related saving in traffic law enforcement, wrecked cars, vehicle repairs and traffic courts. Studies project that traffic accidents will fall by 90 per cent. Garages will go the way of outhouses, and countless acres of valuable space wasted on parking lots will be repurposed, essentially manufacturing vast amounts of new real estate. Environmental pollution will be significantly reduced. Car insurance will become a thing of the past.


That’s all good news – unless you happen to be one of the 3m professional drivers in the US. Or a car park attendant. Or automotive insurance adjusters, body shop workers, car sales people, health professionals and occupational therapists who work with accident victims, or a myriad of others who make their living, wittingly or not, off the current structure of the automotive industry.

Self-driving vehicles are but a single example of a coming wave of automation – mainly driven by advances in artificial intelligence – that will transform the way we live and work. But the transition may be brutal unless we give some serious consideration to changing our economic policies to better align with our social goals. Technology is about efficiency, not justice.

To solve this problem in earnest, we need new financial instruments that treat vocational training the way we treat home ownership: loans secured solely by future earnings, just as mortgages are secured solely by the value of the real estate. Among other advantages, such “job mortgages” would focus the retraining of workers on jobs that are actually available, since lenders would only offer them if there’s a likelihood of a realising a return on their investment.

Then there’s the question of who will benefit from all this new-found wealth. Unfortunately, the answer is that the bulk of the value will accrue to the already rich: reasonably enough, those with the capital to field the new fleets of autonomous taxis will take the lion’s share of the benefits.

If we’re not careful, the modern economy may motor on without us, leaving the newly disenfranchised on the curb trying in vain to hitch rides from driverless cars.  

Jerry Kaplan teaches impact and ethics of artificial intelligence at Stanford University.

This article is adapted from “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”, published by Yale University Press.
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