How Will Self-Driving Cars Change the Way We Live?

After a few years of radio silence, autonomous vehicles are in the news again.

Waymo autonomous cars lined up and ready to roll
Autonomous cars lined up and ready to roll in Chandler, Arizona.

Courtesy of Waymo

Self-driving cars are back.

We used to write often about self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) and how they might change how we live. The early consensus was that they would be electric, and they would be shared since our cars are parked 94% of the time.

They were going to improve our cities as parking space was given up for housing and walking. On the other hand, we worried they might kill cities and bring on endless sprawl. As Alison Arrieff noted in The New York Times: "If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive."

Then they sort of went away as it became clear that this was hard, and was going to take a lot longer than everyone thought. I wrote in 2019 that $80 billion has been spent on self-driving cars with nothing to show for it. The head of Volkswagen said Level 5 Autonomy (where the car really can drive itself) is as hard as "a manned mission to Mars." I showed the Gartner Hype Cycle and wrote:

Gartner Hype cycle

Gartner Hype cycle via Wikipedia

"Let's face the reality: We are not going to replace 95 percent of privately owned cars with shared autonomous vehicles anytime soon. Even if we are in the trough of disillusionment on the hype cycle right now, we have a long way to go to get to the plateau of productivity."

But it seems there has been significant progress in the last few years, and we may well be on that slope of enlightenment. They are no longer called "self-driving" but according to engineer Steven Shladover, writing in Scientific American, they are now Automated Driving Systems "ADS." He notes they won't be everywhere but will work their way in gradually:

"The technology will initially be implemented for specialized uses such as local package delivery, long-haul trucking on motorways, urban transit services on fixed routes and, in more limited locations, for urban and suburban automated passenger ride hailing."

But they are here. Waymo (spun off from Google/Alphabet) and Cruise (part of GM) is now running fully autonomous services in San Francisco, and you can order up a driverless car from Waymo in Phoenix. Walmart is piloting autonomous transport trucks.

Treehugger now has its own fleet of writers covering cars, so I will leave the coverage of the autonomous technology to others. But after seeing environmental scientist Phil Ritz's tweet about the future of garages, I thought I would review some of the earlier posts where we discussed how autonomous vehicles might actually change the way we live.

First, to look at Phil's question about garages, some thought that if a car is like a rolling living room, it might as well be in the living room. Who needs a garage at all?

The Car of the Future Will Be Part of Your Living Room

Hyundai car connects to your living room

Courtesy of Hyundai

Hyundai will connect your car directly to your house; their vision is to merge the car into the home.

"Hyundai Motor’s future vision makes full use of the car for mobility and, crucially, when not traveling it enables customers to continue living without interruption by integrating its functionalities with the home. The new concept combines the comfort, convenience and connectivity features of the car and the home into ‘one space’."

This makes sense; the car is, after all, a moving living room with a comfy adjustable chair, and the garage is... a garage. And none of the chairs in our living rooms are as comfortable or as adjustable as those mobile barcaloungers.

The Car of the Future Will Be in the Living Room of the House of the Future

seating in car
A car parked in the living room.

Courtesy of Renault

Renault had a glorious vision where the car is so spacious and comfortable that you just drive it into the living room and pop the roof. I noted "chairs in cars are already infinitely more adjustable and comfortable than chairs in homes, and the sound systems are better too." It made total sense to me.

The Honda IeMobi Is a Mobile Autonomous Living Room and the Future of Self-Driving Cars

decorating the moble living room

Courtesy of Honda

The Honda IeMobi is perhaps the most interesting: a box that plugs into the corner of your home and is a mobile classroom or party room. "By using IeMobi matching the user’s lifestyle, such as a guest room to invite friends, or a mobile pantry for weekend shopping, new possibilities in mobility and lifestyle are born." I thought the illustrations were silly but the concept was actually brilliant.

"The key point of the design that designers should think about is that this rolling box is actually part of the home, integrated right into it. Honda even thinks it might become more than a vehicle but a food truck: 'Its use is limited only by the imagination: open an impromptu cafe during the weekend, or a soup cafe or curry shop.' "

How Self-Driving Cars Might Improve Our Cities and Towns

city view

WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

Rachel Skinner of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and Nigel Bidwell of Farrells showed a bucolic vision of cars and people coexisting. "As the transformed street shown above demonstrates, there is no longer any need for traffic lights or signs, since the car knows what is allowed where; there is no permanent parking; there are not even any lanes. Pedestrians are crossing everywhere because the car knows to avoid them." But would it really work that way?

Pedestrians Will Have to Be "Lawful and Considerate" in a World of Self-Driving Cars

1939 Worlds fair GM Pavilion

Public domain

Others were not so convinced about this. I predicted the return of the idea of separating pedestrians from cars with bridges and fences, and a new era of regulation, Jaywalking 2.0. Robotics expert Rodney Brooks and others saw laws and the shifting of liability and responsibility to the pedestrians, just as happened a hundred years ago with jaywalking. David Alpert of Citilab saw this coming, suggesting pedestrians will just step in front of cars, knowing that they will stop." That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.”

Brooks concluded: "You people who think you know how to currently get around safely on the street better beware, or those self-driving cars are licensed to kill you and it will be your own damn fault."

Will Self-Driving Cars Change the Way We Live as Much as the Car Did?

broadacre city
Broadacre City.

Public domain

I have often believed how we get around dictates what we build, and remain convinced that if we do get fully autonomous vehicles, there might well be a dramatic change, noting that this has happened many times in the past.

"Every new form of transportation generates its own new urban form. Railways created whole new cities at their nodes; the streetcar begat the walkable streetcar suburb; the elevator, the high rise building; the car begat the postwar suburban low-density sprawl."

Many thought the self-driving car might change the whole notion of how we live, and what cars would actually look like. Chenoe Hart envisioned a world where "our future passenger experience might bear little resemblance to either driving or riding; we’ll inhabit a space that only coincidentally happens to be in motion."

We might well be living in them. "Our understanding of a house as a stable locus of physical and emotional shelter could become diluted. There would be no reason for homes to not also be vehicles."

Mandy class c motorhome renovation exterior

Courtesy of Tiny Home Tours

This is not farfetched; it is happening now for many people like Mandy who lives and works remotely full-time in a charming motorhome renovation. Imagine if it was electric and autonomous.

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change the Way Boomers Live

Mercedes camper
If this were self-driving, could you live in it?.

Treehugger / Lloyd Alter

After seeing a really lovely Mercedes motorhome, I wondered if autonomy might change life for aging baby boomers. Devin Liddell of Co.Design did:

"In the future, the emergence of autonomous RV-like vehicles with architectural elements designed to blur the lines between vehicles and buildings could let older citizens stay in their homes indefinitely. Visits to the grandkids won’t mean a grandparent co-opting a bedroom; instead, their micro-apartment will travel with them... A single structure will simply drive itself down the interstate (or connect at a Hyperloop station) for a high-speed commute someplace warmer or cooler. The future of aging isn’t just about using autonomous vehicles to prolong the independence of older citizens living in their homes, it’s about blending autonomous mobility with the home itself."

In the Future, We All Might Live in Our Cars Out of Choice

party time

New Deal Design

New Deal Design carried the idea even further with their concept of Autonomics. The whole idea of the city or suburb might break down as we get closer to actually living in our cars. It becomes our home address, Little autonomous vehicles called LEECHbots deliver everything we need while we are moving. If you wanted to meet people, you could link up to big party buses called Zoom rooms—this was back in 2014!

"I wanted to go more, sci-fi, is that along the highways you’ll have moving, crawling communities," Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign told Fast Company. "Because a few of these zoom rooms could pick up a lane, slowly move, and you’d have a crawling party happening.”

Co-Living Meets Van Life at Kibbo

Kibbo Clubhouse Community
Kibbo Clubhouse Community.


We have seen the beginning of this with Kibbo, a network of home bases where you can bring your van and get access to groceries, washrooms, Wi-Fi, and "an inclusive, adventurous community — everything you need to live an extraordinary life." Imagine if they were autonomous: You could go to sleep and wake up in a whole new place every day.



Back to the present, we have these on the road. Many will argue that we don't need these, that it is all a waste of money. The Globe and Mail's Eric Reguly is not a fan and thinks they are not coming to a road near you soon.

"They would have to devote fortunes and eons in time to make the roads, technology and legal systems workable and safe. For what? Imagine if all that time and energy and expense went into public transportation instead. Cars that drive themselves are still massively inefficient and space-consuming machines. They still have to be parked and they can still kill pedestrians. They are a solution in search of a problem."

But like so many other technologies, the solution may be used in ways we never imagined, and the problem solved may not be one we ever expected.