I live in the heart of Silicon Valley. Few days go by without me seeing one of Google's self-driving cars whizzing along the 101 freeway. I hear about plans from various car companies planning to release driverless cars to the public market in the not-so-distant future. And I read about how fully autonomous self-driving cars will make it so people will no longer even need to have a vehicle of their own. As a sixteen year old driver, I can't help but wonder if I am part of the last generation of teens who will even bother to learn how to drive. And if I am, should I be mourning the loss of this century-old right of passage?
When I was younger, I fantasized about getting my driver’s license. I imagined endless road trips with friends, spontaneous beach visits, and 2 AM snack stops after a long night of merrymaking. The feeling was that obtaining a driver’s license amounted to unlimited independence. I recognize now that may be a bit of an exaggeration, though it’s still a belief (or perhaps hope) that many teens share.
Already, many big city kids bypass the tradition of learning to drive, opting instead for public transportation or taxi services. Less and less of my friends, who live in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, are placing a great importance on learning to drive, delaying several months or even years before attempting to get their permits or licenses. This trend is not limited to my area. Throughout car-obsessed California, the number of 16-year-old drivers has dropped by almost 20 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Other studies show this decline is a new normal nationally.
Technology like self parking and voice command have already changed how we learn to drive. But these innovations will seem arcane once fully driverless cars become commonplace--a reality that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation projects will happen within ten years all over the world. According to Business Insider, 10 million driverless cars will be on the road by 2020.
So what does this mean for the future of driving? Will “manual” cars become the next hottest hipster item? How will the rules of the road change to accommodate this new technology? Will my kids look at my driver’s license with the same curious awe with which I look at my parents’ old record albums?
In September, Uber launched its first fleet of driverless cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as part of a pilot program. Selected Uber users are given the opportunity to experience a ride from a driverless car firsthand. However, it is still clear that these cars remain in developmental stages. As of now, a human still sits in the driver’s seat to monitor the car's movement and take over in the case of a problem or unexpected hazard.
At the 2017 Consumer Electronic Show in early January, auto giants like Toyota and Hyundai graced the showroom floors with driverless cars they say will be available to the public in the near future. Hyundai, among others, is aiming to appeal to the average consumer, ensuring that these new offerings will not just be a feature of large car services or the well-monied.
Clearly, self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of sci-fi movies. For now, though, I’m a new driver, treasuring the independence that comes with driving myself to school and fantasizing about a real road trip with friends. But I’m also keenly aware that this feeling may soon go the way of the VCR and desktop--and that my kids will likely have to find another way to declare their independence.