At South by Southwest, the question isn't if we'll ever see autonomous cars on the road. It's not even when — most of the experts here think we're just a couple of years away. The real question is, will you ever own one? Right now the answer seems like it's “no” or, generously, “maybe.”
Autonomous cars, particularly electric ones, could make a big difference in driving culture. According to Dr. Frederick Soo of smart car technology company Nauto, the average car sits parked for 96 percent of its life. When it is moving, only 2 percent of all the energy it expends goes to actually transporting a person from point A to point B. That's not very efficient use of technology or space.
But imagine a fleet of autonomous, electric cars that provide on-demand service. In cities this makes a lot of sense, because you wouldn't need a car all the time — it would just take up space in a driveway or garage. In this scenario companies similar to Uber or Lyft would operate and maintain the fleets. You wouldn't be a driver; you'd be a customer.
Not everyone thinks autonomous cars will lead to that future. There are alternatives, such as different households owning a “piece” of a single vehicle that they share. But most of the discussions at SxSW focused on the idea of fleets of service cars.
If that happens, will there be less traffic? Not necessarily, say the experts. Autonomous cars have the amazing potential to give mobility to people who otherwise lack it, like the elderly, the disabled or children. But that also means there could be more vehicles on the road. Ride-sharing, shuttles and buses could help, but we might be looking at a future of robotic traffic jams.
On the plus side, robots are generally better at navigating traffic than people are. Through communication with each other or even the city infrastructure, they can choose alternate routes that will speed up travel and reduce congestion. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this future is that there's still a lot we don't know.