Self-driving cars will kill the cities, and it’s a good thing

I believe self-driving cars will change humanity. 

I don’t know what car ownership will look like; some say individual ownership will be unnecessary, when you can just summon a shared car whenever you need it, like an Uber. For me personally I will always prefer my own vehicle as my car is a second home. But this post is not about car ownership. But a feedback loop in scaling down might mean car ownership might end up like horse ownership: rare, for the rich.

But that’s not the most important aspect of course, because self-driving cars have the potential to change the landscape of humanity in other ways. Self-driving cars will make cities obsolete. Living in a city is expensive and uncomfortable. It’s expensive because people are competing for the space to live there with prices reflecting this demand. It’s uncomfortable because this high value means smaller houses are more profitable than bigger ones and so it has become a race to the bottom of what’s the smallest livable shoebox, while the countryside experiences depopulation. There are plenty of better analyses of this process out there that I shan’t repeat here, however I have some thoughts on a couple of the main reasons for this. 

I think there are two reasons people put themselves through the increasingly dystopian city lifestyle: financial and social opportunity. Financial opportunity in the fact that there are more and high paying jobs in the cities than in the countryside. The social opportunity is the fact that you can find your tribe: you don’t have to be the odd one out in your town, because when you live in a city there’s a plenty of odd people like you. This is why, in my opinion, cities are more liberal and attract the people in the fringes: the weirdos, the geeks, the alternatives and progressives. I’m one of them but I digress. 

Look what happened during the pandemic. People couldn’t socialize, so the value of being in a major metropolis dropped close to zero. Furthermore, working from home meant the sacrifice of living in cramped conditions was no longer worth it. Suddenly people started moving away from cities in droves not previously seen. As the pandemic comes to a close, there may be some reversal of this, however as remote and flexible working continues many people are not coming back. I still see the social aspect as a big pull for many people: you want to go out with your like minded friends in the evening to a pub or a movie or the theater; or you want to date; or go to a museum. The pop up culture, easy transport, late night resources, remain predominantly large city based. 

Having established this: now imagine you have access to a self driving car. You get out of your house, step in it, and then do nothing until it drops you at your destination and takes itself away until needed again. You don’t have to worry about parking. You don’t have to worry about catching the last train home. Are you too tired? Are you a bit tipsy? Not a problem because the car is driving. How far away from the big city would you live if that was the case? You could be working while driving into the city, you could be sleeping while driving out of the city. When you get home, you just drag yourself to bed and continue sleeping. You could live 3 hours away from London or New York and have easy low effort access to them 24/7.

Suddenly the bubble of people accessing the city is enormous. Real estate outside the smoke is cheaper; houses are bigger, farther apart; life is simply better. With easy access many more people can take advantage of this. Subsequently cities will change from the current mix of residential/commercial, to mostly commercial, to purely commercial. Cities become just offices and entertainment. No one lives in boxy apartments anymore. 

This begets the question as to whether cities survive at all. At the point where everybody is jumping on a self-driving car to get to the destination, the location of the destination matters much less. Why would someone rent a theater in Broadway or the West End, when they can rent it in the middle of nowhere, 3 hours from London or New York, and yet get the same attendance and more profit? So if then the commercial users of the city start to leave… Who’s left?

Famous chefs will open their restaurants where they please; great directors will run their plays in the grander and larger venues of the countryside; pubs and bars won’t be limited; Soho can be anywhere. The communities around interest will be spread out and attract city-size populations even in small places, because the bubble of attraction of any activity will be much bigger once getting there is as simple as hop-in-sleep-hop-off.

I think self-driving cars will kill cities the same way streaming killed the video store. Movies no longer compete for shelf space and we all get more access to more movies. Humanity can spread out to smaller towns, but this time without the isolation associated with them. 

I think there will be some issues though. The collapse of real estate in cities could mess up the economy. A city that loses enough revenue to not be able to support itself can turn into an anarchic hell hole. Look at what happened to Detroit as an example. I do hope we can avoid that.

Another possible issue would be if the towns are formed around different grouping traits, for example a town of geeks, a town of liberals, a town of pro-gun people. Despite the lack of isolation and the ready access, humanity could choose to sequester itself into individual echo chambers. Follow this pathway long enough and you reach a rather territorial feudal state of affairs. 

Despite the risks and the potential upheaval, I’m personally looking forward to the future of self-driving cars. Doubtless there will be some growing pains, but in the end, I do believe we’ll be better off.

Picture by smoothgroover22


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