We are on the verge of the age of self-driving cars. This is a fact, with Google, Uber and other companies rushing to develop safe, self-driving road vehicles.

What is less clear to me is the social impact of it. To keep the question short and sweet, think of the vast world of American Suburbia, where possibly a majority of Americans are currently brought up, with parents often reduced to the role of being their kids drivers for various afterschool activities and even play-dates. Or conversely, the kids as prisoners of their parent's willingess to drive them anywhere.

Now in a few short years, our roads will be awash in self-driving cars. How does this change US society in respect to children? Do parents let teens and tweens self-drive away, unleashing a new era of freedom for parents and teens alike? Or do they keep an even tighter leash on them, by constantly monitoring all their comings and goings, 'helicoptering' in at the most embarrassing times? Something else altogether?

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    $\begingroup$ Note: I am focusing on the US because this is where the car-addiction is the direst, but in theory this could be expanded to most places where abundant and cheap public transit cannot be taken for granted. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ I believe this would vary by family, just like it does now in (especially) not-so-car-addicted areas. "Constant monitoring" can be done better with cell phones if that's the goal. $\endgroup$
    – Geobits
    Sep 4, 2015 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ Well we always used our bikes when our parents didn't want to give us lifts. And I'm assuming that would not change at all. So the questions is specifically for those families that are culturally/willingly entirely dependent on cars. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ You'd probably get a lot of obnoxious kids thinking something like this was a funny prank. (Obligatory XKCD) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ "Makeout points" will vanish, as you no longer need to stop the car to get frisky with your girlfriend. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Sep 4, 2015 at 22:18

5 Answers 5


First, I want to point out that in many cities (for instance, New York), most people simply don't drive, and many never learned how. In these places, things might not change too much, as most people who don't have a car aren't going to buy a self-driving one. Public transportation will probably be self-driving, but this probably won't change much; letting your kid take the bus or a taxi to school isn't going to feel any more safe to a concerned parent with or without a driver.

The case it sounds like you're considering is more of a suburban scenario, where kids get a car some time around high school, and can start driving themselves around. In a self-driving world, these kids might end up getting cars even sooner; imagine a spoiled twelve-year-old cruising around in a Mercedes. Even families who can't afford an extra car for each kid might just get one to drive all the kids to school, or program their own car to return home after driving them to work, so anyone in the family can use it. The result of this is that more people will be able to get where they're going, faster. Parking lots should be a lot emptier, while highways will be busier (unless they open up some super-efficient self-driving lanes).

One possible result of this is that families will grow further apart. Compare a parent who drives their kid to and from school to one who doesn't; the former has a lot more time with their kid, and gets to see them in close temporal proximity to what might be the most important part of their day. This trend will continue, as kids no longer need their parents to drive them to friends' houses, or school functions, or sports, or anything that they do outside of the house. The family home may end up being the only place families see each other, unless they make a point of going places together.

On the bright side, this means that parents should be much less worried when their kids start branching out in their teenage years. There just won't be much of a perceived difference, except that the kids won't be home as often. Thus, the kids should have a much higher level of freedom than they do today. Parents are already having a problem keeping up with their kids on the Internet, this is just a further level of that.

Now, after saying all of this, I will suggest that parents are going to fight very hard to keep these changes from happening. People like us who are alive now are going to expect the levels of interaction we have today; the next generation may expect less, though, and the next generation even less. The more we automate our lives, the less we need to see of each other; just look at how social media allows people to feel like they have 'friends', even though they don't have any meaningful conversations. Families may 'feel' like they are just as close as before, but if they take full advantage of self-driving cars, I think it's inevitable that everyone will grow further and further apart.

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    $\begingroup$ By "many cities" you mean which US cities exactly? I'm thinking of NYC as more of the exception than the rule, at least as far as the US is concerned. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa You may be right, I guess I just wanted to point it out as a case to consider. I didn't grow up in a very big city, but my sister lives in Chicago now and she doesn't have a car. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ I don't live in NYC, but my city has a good public transportation system and expensive parking, so I don't own a car. On the rare occasion I want a car, I use zipcar. I doubt I would buy a self-driving car, but I would probably more heavily utilize self-driving zip cars. $\endgroup$
    – emory
    Sep 5, 2015 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ Bear in mind that self-driving cars can be expected to reduce the rate of car ownership by reducing the cost of on-demand rides (think UberX only cheaper and more widely available 24x7). If you are willing to wait for the dispatch time, why tie up money in vehicle ownership and incur the cost of a place for it to sit parked, most of its life? $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Sep 27, 2016 at 1:40

A few of the answers touch on this, but I feel it deservers more focus.

You do not own a self-driving car, you subscribe to one, or rent one as needed. The self driving car doesn't compete with the family car. It progressively replaces the family car, with a different type of service. Like NetFliks doesn't compete with broadcast TV, it replaces it with a different service (as compared to Channel 10 competing with Channel 9).

The self driving car service is much more like a Taxi.

There is no need to have a car sitting in the carport at night, when that car could be driving club goers into town. There is no need to have to have a large carport full of workers cars when they could be going to take people shopping.

The cost of a Taxi is mainly in man power. Thus self-driving taxis would be cheaper than Taxis. Self driving taxi's are also cheaper than personally owned cars too. Because they save on: the opportunity cost of not being used all the time (as they are), and on the parking costs at paid parking, and on the land costs in inner city household parking. They will also have the advantage of never being out of fuel, since a self driving taxi (like any taxi) would not be sent to your location if it needed fuel or repairs. And it would always be properly serviced (unlike personal vehicles (I know my car is a year over due for a service, just cos I put it off)). The do have some increased costs over personal cars, like the owner taking profits. So it depends on competition and supply/demand, the exact price point.

Thus Self driving Taxis will replace personal cars, and taxis.

The trick is waiting for legislation to catch-up. While today's cars need supervision, the future ones will not. We have been making progress in this, one of my professors worked on self driving cars decades ago, and apparently they were pretty good, but they were not allowed on the road at all. Todays are better, and are allowed on road with supervision. Tomorrows will be better still, and will be allowed on road without supervision. Until then we can basically treat self-driving cars as just another convience/safety feature, like Electronic Breaking, and Cruise control -- nothing really changes.

Once legisliation catches up, then we have the real question.

The key difference between a self-driving car service, and a taxi is just the price. In Australia, the UK and the US today, a Taxi might cost you about \$2.50/km. (I was surprised to find it so consistent.) Lets say the price got down to \$0.80/km (My math suggests the Running/Replacement cost is about \$0.26/km, assuming 96,300miles/year,` \$0.16/mile for fuel, \$50,000 purchase cost, and replacing it after just 2 years).

There is another difference, in that before there is a person involved, where as now there is a machine. I suggest that on the whole it is irrelevant. In both cases any fear of the driver is statistically irrational. Some people are going to be scared of trusting a machine. Other people today are scared of leaving the kid with a stranger at all.

Now we can compare how people would interact with cheap taxis (ie self driving cars) to how the interact with taxis today.

If you google for "Send kids to school in Taxi" you will find a lot of result. People do do it, it is quiet common. I imagine it would be come more common with a self-driving car.

Googling "Sending kid on playdate in taxi" returns far fewer relevant results. This forum discussion has people very unhappy with the idea of using Uber for such a thing. Though a lot of that comes down to the very unchecked nature of uber drivers.(The stranger concern is aggravated, compaired to for taxi's where the driver is going to lose their job if the suggestion of something untoward going on). I suggest that with younger children, where the parents normally will sit and have coffee while the children play, there would be no change. When we get to older children and tweens, I expect the cheep taxi service would come in to play. After all we already see children going to a friend's house via the bus or the other kids parent after school. So if the friend came to school via self-driving car then that would be the way they would go over after school.

In short, minor changes for younger children

For teenagers, today on a weekend job, they can't really afford to take a normal taxi. And for teens to young for work, on the pocket money they can squeeze out of their parents, similarly can not afford. What they can afford is public trainsport. Now even the cheap-self driving taxis are still significantly more expensive than today's public transport. I thus suggest that a lot of teens would be fairly unchanged, with regard to their travel. Change may be that instead of walking to the trainstation, they get a pick-up. But it is still out of their reach to do things like take a self-driving car for a day trip to another city etc.

On the other hand, in places that have no public transport system (like where I grew up), there may well be more significant changes. Parents may be more willing to pay for a self-driven taxi, than to drive them themselves. Particularly since the parent may not own a car.

In short the additional freedom doesn't amount to much. It is still too expensive, though it is close.

  • $\begingroup$ The cost of a taxi is largely because of the human element. If I owned my own self-driving car, the operational cost would be far lower. The purchase price makes a huge difference, of course, but even a \$50k car is cheaper than a taxi in the long run. If you put 30k miles a year on your car over 2 years, you're looking at \$0.83 a mile from the purchase cost. Gasoline is currently around \$2.50 a gallon, and 25 mi/gal isn't hard to achieve. That's about \$0.10 a mile. Now do it with a 35 mpg car that cost \$5k used and you're looking at $0.16 a mile. Taxis are expensive next to normal cars. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelS
    Sep 5, 2015 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not entirely sure on your point @MichaelS. Are you agreeing or disagreeing? (See my sedits, perhaps they clear thigns up?) $\endgroup$ Sep 5, 2015 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelS According to ehow.com/info_8446407_many-cab-driver-drive-yearly.html a New York taxi working aroudn the clock (multiple drivers), would do \$187,200 miles to your person cars 30,000 miles. That is to pay \$50K, it off in two years costs just $0.27 a mile (vs your personal cars \$0.83).. Factoring in the \$0.16/mile for fuel, and we get running cos of \$0.43/mile (vs your personal cars \$0.99/mile), or ** \$0.26/km. ** Factoring in taking a 300% markup to cover profits, taxes etc, makes that a \$0.78/km call it \$0.80 (I'll update my answer) $\endgroup$ Sep 5, 2015 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ I can definitely see it becoming more common as a subscription service instead of a situation where family cars are simply upgraded to be self-driving. After all someone would need to maintain the maps and software in the car so even if you own one yourself, you'd likely have a subscription to keep it updated. In that case it would actually end up costing more than a regular car, so why not subscribe to a whole package service where you don't even have to own it and you just order pickups whenever you want? $\endgroup$
    – thanby
    Sep 5, 2015 at 10:40
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't follow that people would not own private self-driving cars. Sure, it's more efficient if it's a shared resource. But you could say the same about today's non-self driving cars. It would be more efficient if my neighborhood had a pool of cars that we all shared kept in a common parking lot. Why don't we do that? Many reasons. One: convenience: if I own it, than I know that it's always available when I want it. I don't have to worry about having to wait to get a car because it's a peak demand time. Two: privacy and cleanliness. If I own the car, I don't have to worry about the ... $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Sep 6, 2015 at 6:15

Well for one, self driving cars will reduce traffic and accidents by a large margin. The cars will also put a lot of cops out of work, increase productivity and allow for new innovations, such as the self driving conference room.

A self driving car still would require an actual licensed driver for situations the car couldn't handle, so you can't simply toss them in the car an say "Nissan, take them to daycare" and watch it drive away.

As for your questions:

Do parents let teens and tweens self-drive away?

Probably, since it's safer than letting them drive on their own. This depends greatly on how good the self driving system is of course.

Something else altogether?

This all is related to how self driving cars are implemented. There might be a system of buses that is used in this way, with drivers there in case something happens. Automation is great provided the environment works for it.

A fleet of vehicles that rotates around, either responding to messages for pickup or following a set pattern makes sense. I don't imagine that remote access would be implemented since it allows for nefarious deeds.

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    $\begingroup$ "self driving car still would require an actual licensed driver" That would not be much of a self-driving car now, would it. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa The car is self-driving, but state legislatures like Oregon require an autonomous vehicle to have a human operator. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Sep 4, 2015 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa: Does NJ do that too? The only state I was aware of suffering from that particular mental disease is Oregon. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Self driving cars that need a human operator "just in case" is an interim stage though, like having someone walk in front with a warning flag. After all, we don't require human-driven cars to have a better human driver present just in case. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Nonafel I would imagine that once a wide enough cases of safety are covered, the cases where human intelligence would be required (earthquake knocks out overpass, for instance) would be rare enough that the car would simply stop and call for help. Mandatory "road side assistance" may be a new clause in state minumim insurance, but I don't think it is reasonable to always require a licensed drive. $\endgroup$
    – wedstrom
    Sep 4, 2015 at 23:18

One of the great hassles of having middle to upper class suburban teenage and tween children is the driving around to soccer, ballet, piano, and other extracurricular activities. Lower class parents who can't afford such extras will see no change with self driving cars. However, lower class parents who can afford extras but don't have the spare transportation capacity to get their children there will benefit.

Some families do very well at together time and others don't. Decreased driving load on the parents may emphasize or demphasize family togetherness.

Certainly, the power to get a child to an activity without parental involvement is incredibly powerful. Determining the best practices for pickup and drop off will need to be figured out, as will security practices to mitigate kidnapping concerns. Self driving cars won't be deployed everywhere at once so there's a decade or so to experiment.

For the more paranoid parent, the ability to know where a child is at any time will offer peace of mind. Further, the knowledge that a car can be dispatched effortlessly for a teen in a compromised situation will also be helpful. Sure, there will be the horror stories of overbearing helicopter parents who misuse the information provided by a self driving car but as now, these kinds of parents are the exception rather than the rule.

Security Concerns

In 2015, the trend known as "Internet of Things" is pushing ever greater amounts of automation and intelligence into every day objects. Lightbulbs, thermostats, cars, everything...which is great for convenience but as of yet security doesn't appear to be big concern. Unless security is addressed then self-driving cars are going to be susceptible to hijacking or snooping.

Ownership Models

My guess is that in the suburbs, small communal car businesses will pop up, kind of like apartment management companies. A normal human owns the car but puts it under management of the management company. The management company handles scheduling and maintenance for a fee or cut of the renter fees.

In larger cities, I think Uber or Uber-like models will prevail. What I'd love to see but doubt will happen is if instead of Uber buying a giant fleet of self-driving cars, they continue to utilize the self-driving cars owned by former drivers. Thus, "ownership of the means of production" remains in the hands of non-traditional capitalists instead of the already crazy rich. Then a driver can buy other self-driving cars and increase their income without selling their time.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Do you think the self-driving cars will be mostly owned or uber-like? $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ Upvote for the kidnapping point. I hadn't thought of that before regarding kids in self-driving cars. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ " the power to get a child to an activity without parental involvement is incredibly powerful" -- as someone who caught a train+bus to school every day from age 11, I'm perpetually surprised at parents who have relinquished this power by not letting their children go anywhere they aren't taken. AFAICT they've done it because of stranger-danger, so a self-driving car with locked doors might alleviate their concerns to a large extent. Provided, as you say, that self-driving cars don't get hijacked. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ And as far as the user experience is concerned, a small communal self-driving car business isn't that different from a self-driving taxi business. Remove the drivers, then Uber and Zipcar are the same thing with slightly different membership models. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 21:18

I might point out that this would be more of a return to historical norms than a new phenomenon. Before driver's licenses were invented, young people were just about as mobile as their parents, not particularly more or less. A young person was just as capable of walking or riding an animal somewhere as his parents were. Parents might tell a young person that he's not allowed to go somewhere alone, but the only limit was really what was imposed by parents, and not things like an inability to drive or legally get a license. I don't know what the cultural norms were back then. I don't suppose that parents let a 5 year old wander around without supervision. But how about a 15 year old?

When I was a boy, people who were not old enough to drive routinely rode bicycles everywhere. My parents only drove me if I was going somewhere that was impractical to reach on a bicycle, which was rare. I regularly rode a bike to school, to the library, to stores, to friends' houses, etc.

I haven't been following the development of self-driving cars that closely, but from casual news stories I've read, there appears to have been remarkable progress in the last few years. I think it's a pretty safe prediction that they'll be practical for routine use within as little as a few years, though probably not as soon as the more optimistic predictions. People are always saying that some new technology will be everywhere in just 3 or 4 or 5 years, when it's really still decades away. But we'll see.

I'd guess it will take longer for them to be legal throughout the U.S. and Europe than proponents assume. People with something to lose economically, like taxi drivers and cities with mass transit systems, will fight them tooth and nail. There will be studies proving they're dangerous, protests, and court cases. Some cities or states will ban them. Like California refused to allow plastic plumbing pipe until 2002, decades after the rest of the country was using it routinely, citing "safety concerns" but everyone knew the real reason was that plumbers fought it because it made plumbing work too cheap and easy. Or see the present opposition to Uber. Etc.

You also have to consider the cost of a self-driving car. I just found a study that estimates it will add $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a car. And of course it will be a while before there are a significant number of used self-driving car available for the cost conscious. So initially, self-driving cars will be limited to upper-income folks. To an extent a family could share a self-driving car, of course. I presume there would be some mechanism that mom or dad could drive the car to work, than have it drive itself home to take the kids somewhere. But there are limits to that. It can't be in two places at once. And plenty of parents would say no, the car has to stay with me in case I need it in an emergency. Some families could afford to buy one or more additional cars for their kids, but many could not.

Presumably there will be self-driving taxi services. As you don't have to pay a driver, these would ultimately be cheaper than human-driven taxi services. But the cost of the service would still have to recoup depreciation on the car, operating expenses, insurance, and all the other costs that go into running a business. Very few families are willing to routinely pay for taxis to shuttle their kids around today. Perhaps with self-driving cars the cost would go down and thus the numbers would go up, but it doesn't follow that this would become common practice.

Consider how many parents today won't let their kids walk or take a bike somewhere. Would they be more willing to let the child make the trip alone in a self-driving car? Maybe it would be perceived as safer. Maybe not. I've seen news stories about parents getting into trouble with children's services agencies for letting their kids walk to a park by themselves. It's quite possible that social pressure or actual laws would make it illegal or otherwise unacceptable to send children under some age anywhere by self-driving car. Personally, I couldn't imagine putting a 5 year old in a self-driving car and sending him off on a 100 mile trip by himself. I'd be terrified of all sorts of real and imagined dangers.


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