As I see it, the eventual goal of this deal is to merge Uber's smart phone car service with Google's autonomous car technology in order to develop a "smart cab" service.
By reducing the cost-per-mile of using taxi service, this type of technology would make it possible for many of us to stop using our cars entirely. For local transportation many of us would use this "smart cab" service. I know I would.
For out of town trips you would catch a "smart cab" to a rental agency and hop in a rental car. My guess is that the rental agencies would rapidly realize that making frequent rentals very easy (i.e. hop in the car, scan your ID and go), they could rent more cars, making this type of trip simple.
Imagine a world where to get to work you simply pull out your phone and press a button. A few seconds (not minutes) later, a clean driverless car pulls up outside your home.
You get in, tell it to go to the coffee shop and off the car goes.
During the trip you order your drink on your smart phone and start responding to e-mail, check your bank account balance, Facebook your mom, text your wife.
You arrive at the coffee shop and the car drives through. You pick up your late mocha grande vente iced cappuccino (I don't drink coffee) which you already paid for. You groan in ecstasy as the caffeine hits your system and tell the car to take you to work.
You arrive at work a few minutes later rested, relaxed and already engaged in a phone call with your first customer of the day.
All for $1 or $2 per ride.
There are going to be several benefits to this.
1. There are going to be a lot fewer cars on the street. Because cars are constantly be in use, there won't be a need to have one car per person. Fewer cars doesn't mean less traffic, but it does mean the community would need substantially less parking. One car per 10 people might well be enough to get people from place to place on demand. The question that needs to be asked is "what percentage of automobiles are parked at any given time?". A lot, and most of them would become redundant.
2. Many of these cars will be electric. When their charge gets low they will simply go to a designated charging station and re-charge. No gasoline necessary.
3. The space currently used to park cars will be be re-purposed as green space, bike paths, running paths or for new buildings. Building new buildings where we currently have acres of parking will increase urban density and create efficiency in everything from heating and cooling to telecommunications.
4. Your total cost for transportation (Vehicle Purchase, Insurance, Maintenance, Fuel, Parking), will likely be significantly reduced. This will make more money available for important purchases like soccer league memberships, locally grown produce and, of course, beer.
5. People will be able to use their time in the car to accomplish other tasks. Most people talk on the phone now, but with a driverless car you will be able to text, send e-mail, surf the web, watch TV, whatever.
6. Traffic fatalities, especially from distracted driving and/or drunk driving will fall substantially. Simply put, a computer can handle a car better than a 22 year old co-ed who is texting, doing her makeup and singing along with Robin Thicke.
7. Those of us who decided to ditch our cars will all of a sudden, have several hundred square feet of garage that could be re-purposed as an entertainment room, workshop or home gym.
8. You will be able to e-hail the type of vehicle of your choice. Need a pick-up for a trip to Home Depot? Hail a pick-up truck. Need a cargo van? Done. Need a car with two child seats? Might take a couple more minutes, but that too will be available at the press of a button.
9. Reductions in required parking would make it possible to sell many municipally owned parking lots, develop existing private lots and invest funds in alternative transportation. If managed properly, this could be a boon for the municipality's bottom line, allowing our leadership to lower taxes or re-purpose funds to recreation, education and beautification.
So how does Lawrence capitalize on this up and coming trend?
1. Create a regulatory environment that welcomes this technology. While other communities are fighting to keep Uber out of their community in order to preserve revenue for existing cab services, we can implement taxi ordinances that are friendly both to Uber type services and to autonomous vehicles.
2. Actively pursue the companies that are developing these technologies and work to become a test site. If our municipality, county and local university make themselves easy to work with, I can see Lawrence as a great community to test these technologies in.
3. Make some of the subsidies we are spending on services like the "T" available to autonomous cab companies. If we are subsidizing "T" rides to the tune of $2 per ride (I don't know how much our subsidy is, but I expect it is in this range), make those same subsidies available to autonomous taxi operators. I bet this alone would garner great interest from these emerging businesses.
This technology is coming. I'd love to see Lawrence as a leader. For once it would be nice to see a technology come to Lawrence before it comes to a place like Palo Alto.