See You In Herndon: Driverless Cars and the Suburban Renaissance

google-self-driving-carIn the nearish future, the hottest new neighborhoods could very well be in Reston or Herndon, Virginia, or Laurel, Maryland, or even somewhere in West Virginia. Why?  The driverless car.

The driverless car is going to be ubiquitous sooner than you think and it’s going to be transformative.  Google has nearly perfected the technology; its autonomous cars have been driving back and forth across the country for years now and the program just got into its first accident earlier this year.  (And it didn’t really count – the Google car got hit while it was stopped at a light.)   And Google isn’t the only company pushing the driverless car agenda – various reports have Uber seeking to acquire a fleet of the robotic, unmanned autos.  (Imagine – no more tense whispered backseat exchanges about “are you sure we shouldn’t tip him, it’s 5 in the frickin’ morning??”)

These cars will dramatically shrink the geography of cities;  places like Herndon, that now seem horribly remote (I used to commute there and it was the worst) will suddenly seem downright convenient once you can knock out an hour or ninety minutes of work in the driverless car during your commute.  (Or, let’s be honest, get an extra hour of sleep.)  Although it might not be an hour – it might only be fifteen or twenty minutes.  Developers have programmed driverless cars to form “platoons” of dozens of tightly-coordinated cars that slipstream off each other (increasing fuel efficiency), and travel at speeds of 120 miles per hour or more.  With computers coordinating traffic – no gridlock – and everyone’s cars hurtling along at insane speeds, your ninety minute “drivered” commute could shrink way down to less than half an hour.  (Hopefully there’s an option to make the car go slower, so you can get in a good hour or more of sleep before work.)

Of course, this utopian scheme could be ruined by a few incompetent holdout drivers; there’s no telling how many high-efficiency computer-controlled car platoons your nonsensical lane-changing and timid highway-exiting could potentially muck up.  Most likely, “drivered” cars will be banished to smaller surface roads, while highways will be for the exclusive use of the driverless cars, which will form what is essentially a new almost-perfect form of mass transit.  It’s like Metro, if the train picked you up at your house whenever you were ready.  (And didn’t burst into flames every other week.)

The upsides are obvious.  With the roads taken over by computerized cars coordinating with each other, traffic deaths will plummet to near zero.  People just aren’t very good at driving.  (Yes, that includes you.)  Even setting safety concerns aside, anyone who commutes – and studies say that millions of Americans are “megacommuters” who travel more than an hour each way, every day – knows that there’s nothing more soul-destroying than commuting.  There’s even proof – studies show that in couples where one of the people commutes an hour or more a day, divorce is 40% more likely than in a non-commuting couple.  Driverless cars will make all that stress and resentment disappear overnight.  Still, there are downsides.  One is the obvious one – pollution.  Eventually all these cars are ideally going to run on solar and electric power, but they will unavoidably have a small carbon footprint.  And there will be millions of them.  They’ll also trigger a “sprawl renaissance.”  However bad sprawl was when it was enabled by drivered cars, it’s going to be an order of magnitude worse when you’re able to spend your commute watching movies or sleeping.  In fifty years, today’s Atlanta could seem, in retrospect, like a quaint little village.

How will this effect rent and property values?  Experts who’ve studied the projections say that once we enter the driverless car era, people will be able to live up to 200 miles away from their job and still keep their commute to a manageable length.  What this means in effective terms is that the DC area’s housing stock will triple or quadruple overnight.  How far you live from your job or where you socialize will cease to be a consideration.  Rent and property values will plummet close-in, and rise on the outer fringes.  What does this mean for you?  Well, it means you should buy fifteen Victorian four-bedroom houses in West Virginia.  The first time you see a robot car with out-of-state plates disgorging a sleepy-eyed coworker in front of the office, go ahead and quit your job – you’re going to be rich.

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