An economic development group in Paris predicts that autonomously driven "taxibots" will largely replace private vehicles. So you can add taxi driver to bookstore clerk, mail carrier and telephone installer on the list of technologically endangered professions.
For the auto industry, the taxibot idea represents one extreme in the increasingly bipolar view of autonomous vehicles. The basic question is whether to go all in or install limited doses of self-driving technology.
Let's look at the two poles.
- All in: As reported by the Associated Press, taxibots would be "self-driving communal cabs" that, ideally, would zip about safely and efficiently, drastically reducing the number of cars on the roads and freeing up real estate used for parking lots.
You might sum this up as the Google viewpoint. After all, Google created a prototype without a steering wheel. Its promotional video showed elderly people, a child and a blind person riding in the "driver's seat."
That's a tantalizing selling point -- if you trust the technology (and if you're not a taxi driver). Taxibotlike transportation would help people who can't drive today: the vision-impaired, the elderly, children and the like.
- Bit by bit: As my colleague David Sedgwick reported recently, the other take on self-driving is much more limited: Drivers should keep their hands on the wheel and be prepared to take over.
The main question here seems to be how to give control back to the driver -- how to signal the change, how much advance warning is required. Forget about napping, reading or using the car as a designated driver after a night of partying.
So what wins?
My guess is that, initially, autonomous-light will prevail. Caution is always wise for a new technology that human lives depend on.
But in the long run, my money's on full-on, lean-back-and-snooze autonomous driving. The benefits are too great to ignore -- especially to people shut out of individual transportation today.