How Autonomous Cars Will Reshape Our World



By Samuel I. Schwartz
Updated Oct. 27, 2018 8:19 a.m. ET

Self-driving cars are just one piece of the puzzle. Former New York City traffic commissioner Samuel I. Schwartz (aka Gridlock Sam) explains.

Nobody, not even transportation experts like me, had an inkling that ride-on-demand services like Uber would change our travel habits so quickly and dramatically. Never in our lifetime have we witnessed such a rapid shift in transportation. Despite global protests, pushback and even outright bans, Uber has become a commanding social and political force—and a $70 billion company—in just eight years. Including Uber’s competitors, like Lyft and Via, the ride-share industry has provided more than 10 billion rides.

But the reverberations from ride-share apps are nothing compared with what will happen when autonomous vehicles become the norm. This new industry is on its way to becoming a multitrillion-dollar business—bigger than Amazon and Walmart combined. According to the World Economic Forum, the digital transformation of the auto industry will deliver $3.1 trillion annually in societal benefits by reducing the number of crashes, the impact of carbon emissions and the cost of car ownership, including maintenance, fuel and insurance. A 2017 study from Intel predicted that the global autonomous-vehicle market will generate $7 trillion annually by 2050—both directly (industrial use) and indirectly (savings from shorter commutes and a reduced need for emergency services).

Everything around us will be altered by autonomous vehicles—our roads, our warehouses and even our definition of what a car can be. Say goodbye to four wheels and a running board; the cars of the future will barely resemble the vehicles choking our cities today.