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An Uber driverless car waits in traffic during

An Uber driverless car waits in traffic during a test drive in San Francisco.

Recent news item No. 1: A Tesla sedan with a semi-autonomous driving system rear-ends a fire department truck in Utah; police investigate whether the car’s Autopilot feature was engaged.

Recent news item No. 2: Uber concludes that a glitch in software that determines how a car reacts to objects it senses was probably the cause of a fatal collision in Arizona in which one of Uber’s self-driving cars hit a pedestrian.

Take-away: Despite these high-profile incidents, self-driving cars being tested by Uber, Waymo, Tesla, Ford, BMW, Toyota and others have terrific safety records. Accidents have been few, minor and nearly always the fault of human drivers in the other car.

So, yes, autonomous vehicles are coming. Technology always gets better, relentlessly. And we had better be prepared, because the disruption they will bring to our way of life will be staggering.

Think about it:

When the Ubers of the world start switching their fleets to self-driving cars, when we can summon a car whenever we want to take us wherever we want with none of the hassles of car ownership, will we still want to own cars? Or as many cars? Will big-city residents, in particular, abandon car ownership?

Given estimates that one driverless car will replace as many as 20 traditional cars, car dealerships likely will begin to disappear. So will taxis, limos, rental cars and shuttles as we know them.

As the number of private cars plummets and new driverless car companies discover it’s cheaper to do most maintenance in-house, what will become of gas stations, car washes, auto-repair businesses, parts stores, brake and alignment shops, tire and detail shops, transmission repair shops, oil change businesses and the like?

How will governments react to the loss of sales taxes from the disappearance of these businesses?

With accidents likely to decline, what will happen to body shops with fewer cars to repair? Tow trucks with fewer cars to rescue?

When fewer people are killed or injured in auto accidents, how will that affect hospitals, health care plans and insurance companies?

With a profusion of self-driving cars, will we need as many parking spaces? What will we do with all those half-empty parking lots?

How will municipalities, not to mention airports, compensate for lost fees from their parking lots? And withered revenue streams from tickets that will no longer be written? And the loss of gasoline taxes, especially as fleets switch to electric cars? And the reduction in motor vehicle registration fees? Even if processing fewer registrations means fewer government workers and smaller budgets, how will municipalities make pension payments for workers already retired, especially those municipalities whose pension plans are far from fully funded?

With fewer privately owned cars, what will become of driveways and home garages? How will those spaces be repurposed? Will owning a car become what it was at the dawn of the automobile age — a status symbol because of its rarity?

What of the importance of that most venerable of IDs — the driver’s license? Will it be as ubiquitous? What will replace it?

Will driverless cars allow senior citizens to stay in their homes longer, since lack of mobility is one of the prime causes of forced relocations?

How will we make sure technology remains robust enough to stop hackers from inevitable attempts to attack driverless cars?

Will more driverless cars and fewer private cars mean we won’t need more roads and more bridges and more tunnels?


Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.