Some say autonomous cars will take over in another decade or two. Not going to happen. Even though autonomous cars could dramatically improve safety, reduce traffic congestion, and boost productivity, we're going to go deep into this century before all cars come without steering wheels. It's a simple matter of mathematics, and of the human psyche.
Let's do the math first. There are over a billion cars and trucks on planet Earth. Most of these vehicles are more than a decade old. Some are quite a bit older. In the US it takes nearly 22 years to turn over the fleet. Even though we buy 17 million new cars a year, fewer than 12 million are getting scrapped. Most of the new cars getting built this year will not be off the road until around 2039.
The first autonomous cars will be available for public use around 2020 in ride-sharing fleets. The first retail autonomous cars, ones that you and I can buy, will probably go on sale around 2025. At first only a few automakers will offer these cars, but by 2030 there should be quite a few different models available.
Most of the new cars getting built this year will not be off the road until around 2039.
Even so, in 2030 the vast majority of cars will not be fully autonomous. There will be plenty of Level 3 cars (that is, cars with semi-autonomous features that will still require human intervention), but human beings will still do most of the driving.
It could take until 2040 or later before most cars are at SAE Level 4 and Level 5 ("high" and "full" automation).
Even so, that means there will still be plenty of new cars that are not autonomous. And because it takes over 20 years to turn the fleet over, they will not be off the road until after 2060.
So it's simple arithmetic. We're going to go deep into this century before we give up driving, and that's if we ever do. Which brings us to the nature of the human psyche.
Most people love the sheer pleasure of driving an automobile. Sure, they hate stop-and-go traffic, but some of us live to push a sports car to its limits, or we just love a relaxing drive on a winding road while taking in the beautiful scenery. Who wants to give that up?
People did not give up riding horses just because the automobile came along. They may have to go to a park or to riding stables, but they still go riding. And that could happen with cars.
At some point in the future, you may have to join a car club to drive a car that has a steering wheel and pedals. Human beings could end up being banned from driving on public roads because they cause too many accidents. But that's a long, long way away, not until after 2060. And that means most of us will be driving for the rest of our lives.
John McElroy is host of the TV program Autoline This Week and an automotive industry expert. He also hosts the web series Autoline Daily and Autoline After Hours.