Self-driving cars, or Automatic Vehicles (AVs), are not yet ready to roll off assembly lines in large numbers.  Not by a long shot. Limited development and testing have led many would-be transportation pioneers to raise more questions than answers. The engineering challenges include issues from light-based sensing technology flaws to the need for moral algorithms in driving choice protocols.

Agency and free will are at the heart of any discussion of artificial intelligence and its attendant costs and benefits to humans. Given the horrible history of humans at driving safely, it is conceivable that fully automated transportation would greatly reduce crash-related injuries and fatalities.

American individualism and exceptionalism are the basis of the owner-driver model of personal transportation. However, the mere thought of giving up the freedom of a car (or two) at the ready for your immediate personal use is anathema to that American ethos. Public transportation, likewise, is largely considered insufficient to the transportation “needs” of most Americans. Since, proven safe(r) mass transit options (hallmarks of well-planned urban spaces for decades) are not enough to overhaul our current driving culture, we turn to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate our personal conveyance experience.

Walt Disney’s original vision of Disney World’s Epcot Center as a fully self-contained futuristic community complete with automated mass transit options, unfortunately died with him.  I often wonder how far along AI transportation would be if Walt could help.

The future of automated transportation is upon us, and we all ought to take a moment to consider what that future will look like and what, if any, role we have in shaping the discourse surrounding its development.

Also, with over 4 million miles of paved roads in the US it is highly unlikely that the future of transportation would abandon that infrastructure in favor of planned communities based on mass transit models. Even if we don’t like the down sides of driving (commutes, costs, crashes), we certainly don’t want to give up the freedom and autonomy to go where we want, when we want. Disney envisioned a community where you didn’t need or want to go very far for anything.

So, let’s assume that the slow roll out of AI-driven transportation alternatives will not be emulating Walt’s Epcot Center any time soon. Services like online shopping, grocery delivery, Uber-Eats, Lyft and similar tech-driven individualistic non-driving experiences are slowly changing the landscape of our transportation options. Remote work options also increase freedom and flexibility in transportation choices faced by many.

In January 2016, GM rolled out a vehicle share program called Maven which allows people to rent a car through an app on their phone for as little as an hour. Among other test sites, there are currently 18 Maven cars on or around the USC campus that can be rented by the hour.

What this means is that the “need” to own your own vehicle is fading into the past as new generations experience multi-modal transportation options that could make vehicle ownership the exception rather than the rule. Moving in this direction would certainly reduce our carbon footprint, and may be critical to reducing carbon-based global warming.

The younger generation embraces this new technology. I have spoken to many of them about this and they express no fear of hoping into a driverless vehicle to get around. One eighth grader, Hannah Cavanaugh Riley, explained it to me: “Younger people trust technology more and we want to get more [technology] every day.”

For myself, I’d probably be a nervous wreck if I had to trust a driverless car to get me anywhere. If it comes in my lifetime, I’d probably also get used to it. The younger generation, however, is welcoming this new AI world with open arms.

I have also spoken to senior citizens who were disappointed when the 1960s arrived and they weren’t all flitting around in the sky like The Jetsons.

Regardless, the human march of “progress” will take us to a future that includes AI transportation — whether we’re ready for it or not.