But it’s in Phase 3, after 2040, that the fun begins. This is the point where autonomous cars become our primary means of transport, and all the rules are up for debate. Just as car design will fundamentally change once things like forward-facing seats, mirrors, and pedals are no longer necessary, the way we structure physical space could evolve: McKinsey predicts that by 2050, we might need just 75 percent of the space we now reserve for parking our cars. Because this is America, that means we get back 5.7 billion square meters of space—enough to hold the Grand Canyon and then some. That’s because autonomous cars can pack themselves together tightly (no need to allow space for human to exit).
More than that though, our entire idea of car ownership could change. Currently, cars sit unused about 95 percent of the time. That leaves a lot of room for improvement in terms of how we allocate resources.
We won’t stop buying cars altogether—people will still want the option to “independently drive and use the vehicle, and have fun doing so,” says Kaas— but we will buy fewer cars. Without the need for a human at the helm, one autonomous vehicle could take the place of two conventional vehicles: If Joan is going golfing and Joe needs to go shopping, a single car could drop Joan off at the club, swing back to the house to take Joe to the supermarket and back, then return to the club and get Joan. Kaas also predicts you could see the rise of private commuting services, shuttling customers around for a fee.
The recurring theme in the McKinsey report is that the consumer wins. Yes, cars crammed full of high-end technology will likely cost several thousand dollars more than they do today. But “drivers” will save money in the form of regained time (spend your commute working instead of driving!) and many fewer accidents: McKinsey pegs the savings on repair and health care bills alone at $180 billion in the US, predicting a 90 percent drop in crashes.
Cars are expensive so this could theoretically save money (as long as the new autonomous cars have reasonable price tags) and offer more convenience. Yet, it could take a lot to overcome the American love of cars. They aren’t simply about convenience or getting from Point A to Point B (and Americans would always choose mass transit if it were more convenient and effective). It is about other ideas in the American Dream, about freedom and independence and having a status symbol and being mobile. Perhaps by 2040, these things won’t matter as much as we all adjust to autonomous vehicles (and perhaps legislation that makes them the norm for safety’s sake). But, this isn’t just a technological change; this requires some big cultural changes as well.