As self-driving cars inch closer to everyday reality, journalists, futurists, economists, and ethicists have weighed in with numerous predictions about autonomous vehicles’ future impact. Liquor sales will rise, the predictions go, since no one will worry about driving under the influence. Cars will have ethics knobs, with settings that vary from minimizing overall harm in a crash to saving the occupants at any cost. Steering wheels, traffic jams, and parking meters will become quaint relics, like hitching posts and watering troughs.
But these prognostications miss what will be one of the biggest developments of all: In a world full of autonomous autos, transportation will become free. Not just hands-free, or driver-free, or go-wherever-you-want free. But free as in beer: complimentary, gratis. Summon a car and travel for nothing—that is, so long as you are willing to make a stop or two en route at sponsoring locations.
Picture a not-too-distant future where a trip across town is available to anyone who will spend 15 minutes in McDonald’s on the way. Not a fast-food fan? Then for you it’s Starbucks, a bookstore, the game parlor. Rides with a child stop at the Disney store, while teenage girls are routed via next decade’s version of Zara and H&M. Unlike today’s UberPool, with its roundabout routes and multiple passenger pickups, “UberFree” features tailor-made routes and thoughtfully targeted stops.