Google's self-driving car Credit: AP

It’s easier than ever to be a futurist. Simply imagine what life will be like when driverless cars take over our streets and highways. Noah Smith, who’s a professor of finance at Stony Brook University, took a run at the question in an essay for Bloomberg reprinted Thursday as an op-ed in the Tribune.

“The technology is advancing rapidly, and major companies are racing to bring products to market,” writes Smith. When they get here, Smith expects a “profound impact on the way our society is organized,” but he sees tomorrow recapitulating yesterday. “When technologies lower transport costs,” says Smith, “they make it easier to live far away from where we work, play and meet.” This was certainly true when the automobile caught on.

Smith goes on: “With driverless cars, people won’t be forced to live near downtown Chicago in order to work there. They will be able to shop at trendy New York boutiques while living in the distant suburbs. Cities may become places where no one lives but everyone works and meets.”

Driverless cars will “create pressure for urban sprawl,” Smith believes. “People will flock to the exurbs. They will build bigger houses and want to cut down more forests.” And he fears “class and racial conflicts.” Cheaper transportation will make it easier for people “to self-sort—to move to communities filled only with the kind of people they want to live around.” And because driverless cars will make it “more desirable and productive to drive long distances,” cars are likely to belch even more carbon into the atmosphere than they do now.

If all this sounds like deja vu to the attentive reader, Smith admits that it is. “You’ll notice that all of these are basically continuations of problems we’ve already seen in the U.S.” Not that the automobile wasn’t worth all the grief it has caused, and not that the benefits of driverless cars won’t be “enormous,” but they’ll bring all sorts of “policy challenges” that Smith says we need to be thinking about now.

And we should. But I wonder if Smith is right when he expects history to repeat itself.

We can’t wade in the same stream twice. People have come to understandings about urban and suburban life that they didn’t have when first they abandoned the former for the latter. People aren’t drifting back into the city simply to avoid a grueling commute but also because they’re choosing the civilization outside their city doors over the one their suburb offered. Driverless cars won’t change that, and though they’ll make the drive from Kane County into Chicago to partake of its riches a lot easier, it won’t get a lot shorter. 

The idea of driverless cars raises possibilities that I’m not sure Smith has taken into account. Yesterday a dental technician was explaining to me her part-time job as an Uber driver. The Uber of tomorrow is banking on the notion that it won’t need drivers: it’ll have a fleet of driverless cars programmed by a dispatcher to show up, pick up, and drop off. Driverless cars will make any cars less necessary—reinforcing a shift in values that’s part and parcel of the return to the cities. Urban families won’t need two cars if a single car can be instructed to run somebody to work and then head back home to take the kids to school and later pick them up for soccer practice—with or without a supervising adult.

And though I’m not sure of what the implications are for how people live, surely highways will change. They were built with high tolerances that allow multitudes of flawed human drivers to move at high speeds and only occasionally kill each other. Driverless cars won’t need those tolerances. Tomorrow’s lanes will be narrower—and fewer in number. Intervals between cars will be shorter. I’d like to think driverless cars won’t simply be more careful than we are but also smarter and more efficient. I’d like to think the elaborate multilevel interchanges that blight our horizons but allow stressed-out human drivers to move along smartly will come down and won’t be replaced.

Maybe they won’t come down. I don’t know. I’m just saying driverless cars will bring us a future that’s not beyond the imaginative reach of anybody. Maybe you can imagine segregation by class and race becoming even worse than it is now.