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The Pros And Cons of Self Driving Cars

Ben Parker

Credit Ben Parker

Article Highlights


  • Parking lots take up a lot of good real estate in metropolitan areas, without personal passenger vehicles needing to park in the city those areas can be used for parks, or commercial development.

  • We all get more time in the day. We spend so much time in our cars that is mostly wasted stuck in traffic. With autonomous vehicles there’s a promise of less traffic, and even if there is traffic you’re not the one driving. 

  • No more typical car costs (insurance, maintenance, etc.)

  • Less accidents, more traffic safety. Most car accidents are caused by human error. Without a human driver there are little to no errors

  • Cleaner air/better for the environment. Autonomous cars using sustainably sourced electricity will drastically reduce CO2 emissions.

  • Increased mobility for the elderly, disabled, and anyone who cannot drive. 

  • No unnecessary hassle, or human interaction, you’ll be able to order a car from your phone.


  • Cities may already be crowded, the promise of freed up commercial real estate could increase the crowdedness

  • With less time focused on driving we lose the little meditative time we already have each day where we’re required not to look at our phones and focus on one thing

  • Although we may no longer be paying for insurance, or car upkeep those costs will be reflected in the price to subscribe to the autonomous car service. 

  • Some accidents may happen on the way to full autonomy. 

  • Autonomous vehicles like ride sharing scooters could be vandalized.

  • When the transition to autonomous takes place, some people may briefly be out of work.

  • Autonomous cars may potentially be hacked.

When any new technology, innovation, or scientific finding is introduced to the world it’s met divisively with people enamored by the prospect of it, or wishing to keep things as they are. From Galileo to Elon Musk, this has held true. It’s the same with autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are definitely going to become a major part of our future travel and there are a lot of benefits to that. Equally as important to evaluate are the drawbacks. What new problems do autonomous vehicles create?

After the first few decades of the 20th century most countries believed that the locomotive was becoming an obsolete form of transportation. Countries began pouring money into highway development, roads, and infrastructure to make the automobile the preferred choice of transport. At this same time, Japan had plans to create the fastest passenger train in the world. What we now know as the envy of the world, Japan’s Shinkansen, has not always been widely adored as it is today. In it’s time this monstrosity of a project was more costly than any development project that Japan had undertaken. The plan was to build a railroad from one end of Japan to the other, with over 60 miles of tunnel. The goal was for these trains to run at 137 mph, which was double the speed of standard trains at the time. Over the five years of construction, the project had spent twice their budget on the project. When it opened in 1964, it made cars look like they were standing still. In the first 3 years it carried over 100 million passengers and demand skyrocketed. Today the shinkansen transports over 1 million passengers each day (Watch this video to learn more about the Shinkansen). 

With very rare delays, incredible safety standards, and increasingly fast speeds it’s hard to imagine retroactively why anyone wouldn’t want one of these trains. But from the beginning the Shinkansen project met some resistance. People thought it would compete with airlines, and smaller trains, effectively putting people out of their jobs. It was gonna cost way too much money to build, plus, people liked cars. People liked the trains they had, they liked the planes they flew on. So why would we need this bullet train? 

The Shinkansen bullet train pulling up to a station in Japan. The Shinkansen now widely used as an example of well engineered public transportation was initially met with doubt and fear. The Shinkansen opened in 1964 with a 320 mile stretch from Tokyo to Osaka. When the train had its inaugural launch it was met with wide acclaim despite being millions of dollars overbudget.

Heavy traffic on the Dan Ryan expressway in Chicago Illinois 1975. Americans are not estranged to bumper-to-bumper as we spend a good amount of our lives in cars.

Credit John White

Americans spend collectively 175 million hours a year in traffic. All of that time could be used more productively with autonomous vehicles.

This all sounds so familiar. Autonomous cars may not equate exactly to the amazing feat that is the Shinkansen, but there are many benefits to these cars that we can’t see now:

Pro: More Room in Our Cities

So much of the real state occupying metropolitan areas is for parking. A lot of parking lots don't get used 24/7 either. Many private parking lots reserved for business take up acres of land in cities. One study by the IBI found that there is 1,300 square feet of parking per every automobile in North America. That means that my car has more space to call its own than I do. With autonomous vehicles, storage lots can be built in areas outside of prime real estate locations that are currently occupied by parking lots. This property could be used for parks, green areas, or even commercial development. 

Even think about home garages. You may not need one 50 years from now (if you’re like me and you hold on to old dust bucket cars then you may still). 

Con: Development and Revenue

What was considered a pro, may also be a con. With parking lots removed and room for commercial development available, cities may become more congested than they currently are. But this will add more money to city revenue from taxes.

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The Cruise Origin a self-driving car currently operating in San Francisco, the startup provides mobility services for actual customers currently.

Technological progress is not a phenomenon only of our times. It is as old as man. However much of a break with the past today’s technologies—robots, computers, artificial intelligence—may seem, they are in fact part of a continuum

Pro: We All Get More Time

One study on passenger car travel in the United States reported that Americans spend collectively 175 million hours a year in traffic. All of that time could be used more productively with an autonomous vehicle. 175 million hours of business time regained will be reflected in the national economy. In the book Sustainability prospects for autonomous vehicles : Environmental, social, and urban  it reveals how bad traffic is really getting “Another measure of the growth in congestion is a slowdown in the speed of urban traffic, as indicated by a study of London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Stuttgart (INRIX 2014). In London it was 21 miles per hours (mph) in 2013 and was projected to fall to 16 mph in 2030; in Los Angeles, from 21 to 15 mph.”

Con: Less Thinking Time

Safe driving practices, allow you to focus on one thing and get away from screens, from work, and much more. For some, driving is the only time in the day to think clearly, to meditate, or to just sit still. This can still be done in an autonomous car obviously, but you’ll no longer be forced to focus on driving. 

Pro: No More Typical Car Costs

This one is not entirely for certain, however many speculators believe that in the world of autonomous cars companies and manufacturers will begin to take on the liability for their autonomous cars. Similar to how things work today with Uber, Lyft, and the like. When you don’t own a personal car anymore you don’t need to insure it. 

The same goes for other things you typically pay for when owning a car. Goodbye oil changes, checkups, tire rotations, new tires, dead batteries, new transmissions, all of it. With autonomous cars, companies will have to absorb these costs.  

Con: New Things to Pay For

Because autonomous cars are more efficient, and people will be carpooling, the actual cost of transportation per person will go down. You won't be directly paying for auto insurance, gasoline, annual maintenance, etc. but all of those costs will be reflected in the price of the subscription to use an autonomous car. 

A few other costs that will arise will be the complete reconstruction of our nation’s current infrastructure. For us to really benefit from AVs (autonomous vehicles) we’ll need smart streets, smart street lamps, highways, freeways, buildings, etc. Who will pay for this?

Pro: Traffic Safety

Possibly one of the biggest benefits of autonomous vehicles is traffic safety. About 90% of motor vehicle accidents are caused by a human error. About a third of those involved a distracted driver. In a fully “smart” city the road would be talking to the car and vice versa making it very statistically improbable for accidents to happen. It also just generally means less traffic. 

Attached to this benefit is the cost on city, and state governments that traffic incidents are. During the COVID-19 pandemic. From the start of shelter-in-place (about a month) California saved over $40 million a day or roughly $1 billion altogether. This can be looked at as a test-run for what the autonomous future will be. Obviously there’s a difference between the whole state shutdown and self driving cars being fully adopted but the numbers show that without people behind the wheel accidents are down.  

Con: Some Things Are Gonna Get Hit

Many speculators talk about how long it will take for us to actually become fully autonomous. Mckinsey Consulting Firm marks this process in phases:

Era 1 (2015 - 2025): Fully autonomous vehicles developed for consumers

Era 2 (2025 - 2040): Consumers begin to adopt AVs

Era 3 (2040-2050~): AVs become the primary means of transport

Their evaluation of the phases breaks down what each of those entail. The era of concern is Era 2 which we’re coming to pretty quickly. Era 2 is the time when some AVs appear on roads and have to drive compatibly with human drivers. We’ve already got a small taste of what this will be like with practically self-driving Teslas. In order for these cars to become safe, they’ve got to be unsafe for a while. Like a baby learning to walk, it’s gotta fall down a few times. Unlike the simple coding of an ordinary robot, autonomous technology requires machine learning. Emphasis on the learning, which comes from experience. For a car to recognize a kid flying by on a skateboard, the engineers will show the car thousands of pictures of kids on skateboards, kids approaching cars on skateboards, etc. But the only way the car will really learn is if it has a few times messing up and actually hitting the kid; which obviously is not ok. There’s a Bloomberg article by Zachary R. Mider called “You Gotta Smash a Few Cars to Make an Autonomous Vehicle” , Zachary details why this is the case.

“The more experiences they have, the smarter these machines get. That’s part of the problem, Kalra argues, with keeping autonomous cars in a lab until they’re perfect. If we

really wanted to maximize total lives saved, she says, we might even put autonomous cars on the road while they’re still more dangerous than humans, to speed up their education.

Even if we build a perfect driverless car, how will we know it? The only way to be certain would be to put it on the road. But since fatal accidents are statistically rare—in the U.S., about one for every 86 million miles traveled—the amount of necessary testing would be mind-boggling. In another Rand paper, Kalra estimates an autonomous car would have to travel 275 million failure-free miles to prove itself no more deadly than a human driver, a distance that would take 100 test cars more than 12 years of nonstop driving to cover.”

Since 2016 there have only been six autonomous vehicle fatalities on record. Which is a pretty good track record, considering as of February of this year Tesla announced their cars have driven 3 billion miles on autopilot. All of those miles have been collected as data points, and learnings for Tesla’s autonomous systems. Another reason why Tesla is literal miles ahead of the competition. Perhaps one of the smartest things Mr. Musk has done is put these cars on the road with Autopilot as opposed to spending years of testing and refining.

Present day Tokyo Japan

Pro: Cleaner Air/Environment

One study conducted by the State Key Laboratory of Automotive Safety and Energy in Beijing found that there are a few ways that autonomous cars will benefit the environment the pieces that they found as beneficial were “reducing vehicle ownership, increasing vehicle [lifetime], and changing the vehicle fuel consumption rate.” Each one of these could be considered a pro on its own but collectively they prove that self driving cars will really help the environment.

Because autonomous vehicles will be considered a service rather than an owned product many people will pay for the service without owning a car. Less cars on the road, less emissions. Also the study showed that the lifetime of each of these autonomous vehicles could be maintained for as long, or longer than a typical vehicle. This means less cars being produced overall, less emissions and waste from production. Electric cars are much simpler mechanically, and require less parts. Electric cars (and autonomous vehicles subsequently) require roughly 7,000 parts where a typical internal combustion vehicle requires 30,000. Many electric/hybrid vehicles drive on what is called “eco-mode” which greatly reduces the fuel consumption of the vehicle. Most autonomous vehicle manufacturers are making their cars run on an eco-mode of sorts. 

Another study suggests that a fully electric (from a sustainable power source) runs at an energy efficiency level thats more than 90% which is almost three times the efficiency of a typical internal combustion vehicle. 

Con: Vandalism

If you’ve visited any large city (practically) across the world in the past two years you’ve probably seen in tangled mounds of electric scooters on street corners, in parks, and everywhere else. Electric scooter companies like Lyft, Bird, and Lime have all come to be commonplace in metropolitan areas across the world. One issue they’ve faced as they’ve tried to scale their businesses is the treatment of their scooters. The Guardian reported in 2018 that over 100 scooters had been dumped into Oakland’s Lake Merritt. The Los Angeles Times reported a story of locals setting the scooters on fire. You can check out this instagram profile, Bird Graveyard to see just how terrible these things are treated. This could be taken as a potential omen for what’s to come with AVs. Both the scooters and AVs are service based, and require no company operator. You can rent a scooter completely from your phone without anyone from Lyft/Uber/Lime watching you. Although there are some in-app precautions in place to stop people from vandalising these scooters it still happens, alot. AVs will suffer from this same problem, but onboard cameras and other similar in-app precautions may help alleviate that issue. 

Pro: Increased Mobility for Immobile

Another major pro of self-driving vehicles is providing transportation for those who cannot drive themselves. The elderly or disabled will ideally in the future have access to self-driving vehicles that can transport them all over. 

Con: Initial Job Losses

Definitely a topic of conversation in a lot of political arenas, is the loss of jobs to robots. Andrew Coyne a business and economics columnist for Canada’s National Post sums up accurately why these fears are potentially misplaced:

“Technological progress is not a phenomenon only of our times. It is as old as man. However much of a break with the past today’s technologies—robots, computers, artificial intelligence—may seem, they are in fact part of a continuum. Every tool, every advance, everything that enables one man to do more deprives two men of the chance to do less. But without it living standards would never have risen above subsistence levels. Had no jobs ever been displaced, even in the past century, we should still be 80 percent employed on the farm.”

Pro: Ease of Use

Can you remember the first time you used a ride hailing app? If your experience was like mine, it was nearly a miracle. It was early 2015 and I had to get from San Jose Airport to the 49ers game in a hurry, from curb to curb it was about 20 minutes, my Lyft driver was perfectly friendly and also my age. Now in a normal work week I use Lyft or Uber about twice. It’s become a part of life for many people living in metropolitan areas. The app, and the technology have created the ease of use, but the current drawbacks of ride hailing services are the human drivers. Some drivers are not that great, others are too chatty, others maybe not friendly enough. Obviously this is not to say that all drivers are bad, so many that I’ve ridden with have been perfectly present. With a self driving car much of this will be solved. 

Con: Hacking Autonomous Cars

Almost anything electric can be hacked, including self driving cars. This could possibly be the biggest drawback to these autonomous vehicles. There are two types of threats when it comes to cybersecurity for these vehicles. The first being what you may typically understand as hacking where someone connects to these vehicles via the internet and messes with the computer, gps, or other components. This would lead to a scenario like someone tampering with the cars’ trip destination. Although a potentially real threat this is less of a worry to the second type of “hacking” threat. The fact of the matter is that these cars currently use sensors to detect the world around them that are easily tricked. Lidar scanners can be faulty if there’s too much dirt on the lens, or if there is something obstructing them. These cars also look for signage to detect what it should be doing -- just like us humans do -- but someone replacing a sign, or putting up something to distract the car is a real possibility. These concerns will all be resolved as the technology meets the needs of the consumers, and cities in which they drive.

Like the Shinkansen, we’re not entirely sure of all the ramifications of a completely autonomous transportation infrastructure. With any new technology comes fear, excitement and uncertainty. The upsides can out weigh the down. The future of self-driving cars is either a wonderful more efficient, sustainable one or a rocky intermission to something greater. It’s impossible currently to accurately understand all of the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles yet we can hope for the promise of a wonderful new future.