Not so long ago one could routinely observe several vehicles pulled over on the side of a highway due to mechanical breakdown. Today that is a rare site. These days there are very few bad cars on the the road. This unheralded improvement in quality has been overshadowed by anticipated changes, one reasonable, and the other less so.
There is a general consensus that the cars of the near future will be electric-powered and self-driving. Only one of these predictions, the electric car, is likely to be realized as anticipated. But this is hardly a breakthrough in transportation, and the supposed economic and environmental benefits are not very clear. Since something has to generate the electricity to power these vehicles it means that a substantial amount of energy is still being expended in some way, if indirectly, and the benefit clearly depends on how the electricity is being produced.
There is still nothing as efficient and reliable as the internal combustion engine, and that is the reason why most autos still run on gasoline. If that were not the case everyone would be driving electric cars now. But oil is still plentiful and cheap and without massive government subsidies and pressure electric cars would still not be viable.
But this does entail a paradigm shift. Now you fill your tank as needed based on your own choice. When electric cars predominate, the production of energy will be offloaded, centralized, and outside of our control. Nevertheless there are other advantages to electric vehicles, notably in terms of emissions, as long as the alternative energy production is significantly cleaner, which is by no means certain. Furthermore if there were to be massive automotive electrification, and it were to become the predominant method for powering cars, the cost of gasoline would tumble as a result due to reduced demand, which means that petroleum would be an even greater bargain than it is now.
The term self-driving car is an oxymoron based on the Greek and Latin roots of automobile, which already means self-driving. On that basis if driverless cars were to become ubiquitous, logically self-driving cars would be those still operated by humans. However, I don’t think this is ever going to happen everywhere. It certainly will happen in older, denser large cities, where there would be pronounced efficiencies in only using a car when needed. But while these urban dwellers might not need to own a car, most everyone else still does.
The implications of driverless cars don’t seem to have been fully thought out, due to an almost blind faith in the superiority of technology. But there are abilities that humans possess that machines are unlikely to ever have. For example, experienced drivers have an extra sense, almost an instinct as to what the surrounding drivers are likely to do. They can anticipate how others will move with amazing accuracy. They can intuit what another drivers intentions are. Think of driving on a highway alongside a car to your right, which hasn’t yet signaled or doesn’t bother to, yet, somehow you know they intend to pass in front of you. Or the way you know that the car in front of you is likely to make a left turn before they even turn on their signal.
If we did not have this sense there would be far more accidents than there are. It is like anything we do well without really thinking about it, having subconsciously absorbed the method, like walking. There is just no way a machine can accurately sense the trajectory of cars around them based upon a sense of the other driver. Most cars are equipped with automatic cruise control, but hardly anyone uses it consistently, and it is quite likely that driverless vehicles will suffer the same fate.