What Will Autonomous Cars Mean for the Next Generation of Drivers?

In the not so distant future, cars will only require passengers, not drivers. A Young Adult Sci-Fi author weighs in on what this means for tomorrow’s young drivers.

The number of young adults with driver’s licenses has been declining steadily for decades now. But why? No, millennials are not lazy — no more than any other generation, at least — nor are they staying at home in big enough numbers to explain the decline. They are more likely to live in cities and take public transport and have otherwise realized no one needs to own a car. After all, there are apps for that.

Uber — and Lyft and Mystro and Maven — have disrupted taxis, sure, but also the way we all think about driving. Autonomous vehicles, the kind crawling the streets of Pittsburgh with Uber badges on them, just add to the effect. No one needs to own a car, nor do they really need to drive them.

To a generation of young adults to-be — teenagers for whom ride sharing and cars that drive themselves and the like has always been and therefore will always be — this line of thinking evokes a collective shrug. The rest of the license-toting public should be horrified.

As least that’s what the young adult science fiction novelist Andy Marino thinks. He explores technology, young adults, and the way we will drive in the very near, very dystopian future in his latest novel, Autonomous. The novel centers around a self-driving car that can do many things that would fall in the realm of science fiction, but also many that are not very far off. This includes chauffeuring you anywhere without a driver, syncing with your phones, and downloading your (online) personality, guessing what your needs and wants are, and eventually to bring you to the locations best suited to your desires — you know, without asking. That’s the dream, isn’t it?

We talked to Marino about driving, technology, and what’s going to happen to teenagers who give up taking the wheel into their own hands altogether.

How has technology changed the way teens view driving?

I think the same thing that has everybody concerned — teen drivers keeping one eye on their phones and one less dedicated eye on the road — is a good reminder that cars today are so smart, they seem less like self-contained vehicles and more like extensions of the technology we interact with all day long. It’s not like teens are climbing into cars and feeling cut off from the world, with only a tape deck for company. When you can integrate your mobile experience, the journey isn’t a single task to focus on — it’s just another part of the hyperconnected day. Older generations have seen the evolution of all this technology. But if you’re currently a teenager getting your license, this is all you know.

What does driving mean to teenagers and what do you think has changed?

I think the classic driving-for-the-first-time sensations — the “freedom” of the open road, the self-sufficiency represented by being able to get around without relying on your parents — has been devalued a bit by the realities of modern life. In rural areas a license is probably still a necessity, but in places where you can walk to mass transit stops, or easily use a ride-sharing app, driving can be more of a hassle than a symbol of freedom.

How will autonomous cars change driving for us all?

This is nightmarish, but our commute could become just another part of the workday. If we can sit in a self-driving car with our laptops open, maybe we’ll be expected to be logged on at eight o’clock instead of nine. People’s workdays are stretching into this blurry area already — imagine if you didn’t have “I’m driving right now” as an excuse anymore.

And then, when we get to work, maybe our cars won’t sit in the parking lot. Why should they? Other people can use them until we need them again at a designated time and place. This throws off the whole concept of “owning” a car, and might even change the way cities and towns are designed, since there won’t be as big a need for dedicated parking lots. But that’s a whole different tangent.

How about for teenagers?

I do wonder how it will change the road-test-as-rite-of-passage experience. Will we require kids to be able to drive before they get in an autonomous car? If not, then the relationship between teens and driving might not be nearly as meaningful—not if you’ve been taking solo rides in cars since you were ten. Which brings up another interesting question: will there be an age requirement for “driving” an autonomous car?

What do you make of apps that monitor teen drivers? Parents clearly love them, but do you have problems with such surveillance?

Responsible Adult Me thinks any tool that makes people safer drivers is, on balance, a good thing. But if I was a teenager I would hate the fact that my parents could track every car trip I took. That pretty much destroys the spontaneity and fun of taking the car out on your own. GET OFF MY BACK MOM.

Parents are happy to act the part of the nanny state in monitoring and controlling their children. What’s so different about technology doing it? Should we check our impulses when it comes to tech that’s watching over us?

We should, but millions of us don’t. I’m as guilty as the next person. We’re social animals, creatures of convenience and connection, and it’s hard to opt out once you’ve had a taste. I was a bit of a luddite for a while, only recently traded in my antique flip phone for a smartphone, and already I’m one of those idiots who practically walks into traffic flipping through Instagram stories. The pull is too powerful. Harvest my data — harvest my organs — just let me stay in the loop. I give up.

Are we doomed to serve the machines?

After the driverless singularity, I’d say there’s a 40% chance that cars will begin driving us off cliffs en masse. In all seriousness, these cars will have to be programmed to sacrifice their drivers if the other option is running down, say, a family of four. So HAL really will get some of us, at least.