Self Driving Cars: Bigger Than You Think

Check out this map of Target locations in the area around San Jose. There’s a roughly uniform density of Targets. Nobody is more than 3 miles or so from a Target.

This map is roughly 9 miles on a side. Screenshotted from Google Maps.

We Care About Travel Time, not Distance

Target consumers don’t care how geographically close they are to Target — they care how long it takes them to get to Target. The number of miles is irrelevant — it’s the time it takes them to get in a car, get there, and get back that matters.

If we remove 90% of the cars, and the remaining 10% don’t need traffic lights because they coordinate crossing intersections algorithmically, how does the map change?

Cars would be able to travel the same distance much faster. Now you’d need one Target in this area, instead of 9, in order for everyone to be the same time-distance from a target.

Questions For The Reader:

What happens to the other Targets? What does the remaining Target look like? Is it easier to handle logistics for one larger target, or 9 smaller ones? How does this affect the cost of retail? How many other retail operations could also reduce the number of their stores? What happens to that extra land?

What happens to public services? Driving an hour each day for school is a long way. If that same distance now takes 20 minutes, this means people selecting private schools could travel much farther and thus choose from far more schools. It also means that public schools could be less tied to zip code, because traveling halfway across town would not take much less time.

How many companies are there within an hour’s drive from you? If that ‘hour drive’ radius extends out to be three times as far — how many more companies does that include? Does being able to choose from more companies increase your possible salary? Does being able to hire people from a larger radius make it easier to run a company without difficult employee turnover?

What happens to local government and real estate? If your job can be quite a distance from where you live, without leading to a long commute, are there places you’d prefer to live, with more space, better schools, or lower cost?

What happens to the car companies when there are only 10% of the cars on the road?

Distance is linear — but area is distance squared. The pain of traveling is measured in terms of time, but the utility we get from travel goes as the area we could cover: the square of the distance we travel. Double the reasonable travel distance, and you quadruple the possible benefits of doing that travel. Travel three times as fast, and now you’ve got 9x more places you could go.

Get excited, folks. I think we’ll see as much change in the next 30 years as we saw in the last 100.

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