How Self-Driving Cars Will Change the Future of Travel

Say Goodbye to Gridlock (and Maybe the Road Trip, Too)

Waymo minivan
••• Waymo's fully self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan. Waymo

The stuff of science fiction just a few short years ago, self-driving cars are rapidly becoming a reality, with companies like Tesla, Google’s Waymo, and several others all competing to be the first to market with a truly autonomous vehicle.

Whichever company wins the race, the technology will fundamentally remake the automobile industry. While the initial disruption is likely to be most keenly felt by freight haulers and taxi drivers, ultimately self-driving cars are going to affect almost every industry, and travel is no exception.

Dusting off our crystal ball, we're predicting a few of the big changes vacationers are likely to see in the coming decades.

 

Holiday Season Travel Will Get Much Less Awful

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Turkey, parades, time with family… and, probably, nose-to-tail traffic for hours on end. Every year is the same, with lines of cars stretched for miles on the roads out of every major city in the United States.

One of the big promises of self-driving cars is a major reduction in traffic congestion and accidents, the main causes of traffic jams and delays on our highways. Autonomous vehicles will continually monitor the traffic around them, letting them travel faster and closer together than any human driver could safely do.

They also don’t need the same safety margins we do, allowing for narrower lanes, and therefore more cars on the same stretch of road – at least once human drivers have been eliminated completely.

Tracking conditions along the entirety of their planned route, self-driving cars can adjust for roadworks, bad weather, crashes, and anything else making the journey slower than expected. This will happen invisibly and automatically, removing vehicles from problem areas, and helping conditions get back to normal more quickly.

Ultimately, vehicles will likely make travel suggestions before you’ve even started packing for your trip, perhaps suggesting leaving earlier or later to avoid potential problems. Don’t want to hit the road at 2am? Don't worry -- it’s much less of an issue if you can snooze for a few hours while the car does the driving for you.

 

Airlines Are Going to Feel the Pressure

What’s the worst part of going on vacation? For many of us, it’s the flight that gets us there. Flying on a holiday weekend is rarely anything other than a misery, but even traveling off-peak is far from enjoyable.

Invasive pat-downs, frustrating baggage restrictions, lengthy delays, cramped seats, bad food, the list of annoyances is as long as the security lines – and yet, as bad as it is, for the majority of vacationers, it’s still preferable to spending a dozen hours behind the wheel.

That equation will change in the next couple of decades, though, at least for trips that currently involve a flight under around three hours. As well as fewer traffic delays as mentioned above, autonomous vehicles bring several other benefits for long-distance driving trips.

As cars will no longer need a driver’s seat, they can be redesigned for more comfort and flexibility.

They could have lie-flat beds similar to business class airline seats, for example, or rotate to allow the passengers to chat or play games.

Even for those who don’t own their own self-driving car, on-demand shuttles will provide door to door service, either for a group traveling together, or a number of solo travelers and couples heading to the same place.

Prices of self-driving vehicles are expected to drop steadily after introduction, and with them, the per-trip cost. Once it’s possible to get picked up on your doorstep in the evening, sleep well overnight, and wake up halfway across the country the next morning, all for less than a plane ticket, the dynamics of vacation travel start to change significantly.

And, of course, as more people choose to take the car rather than fly, it will make the lines shorter for those of us who still decide to head to the airport.

Well, until airlines start cutting capacity, at least.

 

What About the Great American Road Trip?

One of the casualties of the switch to autonomous vehicles will be that summer staple, the great American road trip, at least as we know it today. While it’s likely to be a few decades before we see a complete switch to self-driving vehicles, there’s little doubt the days of driving yourself across the country are ultimately numbered.

Insurance premiums for human drivers will start to rise as the lower accident rate of self-driving cars gets factored in. Eventually, many years from now, it’ll likely be illegal to take a non-autonomous vehicle on the road, even if you want to.

Of course, while you’ll no longer be able to guide your convertible through a series of switchbacks yourself, or revel in the sudden burst of power as you plant your foot on an open highway, there are upsides to letting your car do the road trip grunt work.

With no need to keep their eyes firmly glued to the road, former drivers will be able to enjoy the scenery and views a lot more. Driving long distances is exhausting, so taking all that extra concentration out of the equation means arriving at your destination feeling refreshed.

The safety aspect, too, is a factor -- there'll be no more accidents due to tired drivers, unfamiliarity with the local conditions, or one too many beers at the lunch stop. For the sick or elderly who no longer feel confident behind the wheel, turning the driving over to a computer reopens the option of even taking a road trip where it didn’t exist before.

Do any of the benefits make up for the loss of the traditional road trip? That’s up to you to decide. As it’s likely inevitable, though, it'd be advisable to make the most of the experience while it lasts.

Within a generation or two, steering wheels and gas pedals will likely seem a quaint relic from the past, as obsolete as floppy disks and transistor radios do today.