09/26/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Autonomy: The Self-Driving Car and You

Audi announced last week that it has become the first automaker to receive approval to test its self-driving cars on California's public roads. Autonomy (both technical and political) is about to shift into high gear.

We could be forgiven for thinking this is a vaguely interesting gewgaw in a world benumbed by technological gadgetry. The iPhone Six is out, for crying out loud... But like those who scoffed at Karl Benz's strange "Motorwagen" in 1900, we'd be overlooking a revolution.

The thing about self-driving cars is that it's not about the car, it's about movement, and the implications of autonomous movement are huge. Give it a few years, but with a bit educated imagination we can see:

- Zero ownership: with "selfie" cars, there is really very little reason for owning a vehicle. If in a matter of mere moments you could "order up" a car of your choice from a fleet of free-roaming, auto-piloted cars, then why in the world would you need one parked in the driveway? Vehicles would be owned and operated by a handful of efficient companies that know just the right number of vehicles to have operating at any one time to serve the maximum clientele. The vehicles would be immaculately cleaned, well maintained, and safe. Doubtful? Today's rental car companies do this already...

- Accurate "sizing": if owners are no longer tethered to their vehicle, the free market will quickly discern the right mix of vehicle types. The vast majority of daily commuting is by one person with practically no cargo. Commuters, then, are likely to order a small, compact, cheap car for that morning's trip instead of, say, a truck (how many empty pickups do we see charging around town today?). If they need to hit Home Depot on their way home, they order the truck instead of the Vespa... The idle capacity stored in our vehicles that we obligingly pay for, maintain, park, and pay insurance on will largely disappear.

- A real-estate revolution: if vehicles are constantly on the move, being perpetually routed to where they are needed, parking lots become largely obsolete. Some of the world's most valuable real estate is locked away under asphalt, particularly in urban centers. This use of space is expensive and wasteful ($538/month in midtown Manhattan, $161/month national average). As parking lots disappear, they will be repurposed toward higher and better uses (how about "parks"?). Architecturally, eliminating the need to store parked vehicles will be an aesthetic boon. Gone will be the monolithic parking garage; gone too, will be the ugly double-door façade of the modern suburban home.

- Freed resources. There are an estimated 253 million operable cars and trucks in the U.S. today. Conservatively estimating a $12,000 value per vehicle, the nation is sitting on about 3 trillion dollars (nearly the annual government budget) in mechanical capacity that often sits unused. Autonomous vehicles, while certainly not free, will almost certainly be used more efficiently, channeling that capital into more worthwhile pursuits (Toaster Strudels and Gaming Consoles probably...). The other side of the coin is the freed human capital. We spend around 540 hours a year in our cars, 38 in traffic alone. If you're like a frightening majority of us, you spend tiny slivers of that time texting, tweeting, grooming, and brokering peace with kids in the back. But mostly, the driver is engaged in trying to outmaneuver his or her traffic foes; stopping at lights, obeying the speed limit, maintaining vehicle separation, and generally avoiding one of our leading causes of death. Autonomy frees those hours for (conceivably) better use, hours almost certainly better spent than driving badly...

Those are just the obvious, logistical impacts of autonomous locomotion. The other glaring benefit (and don't tell the bureaucrats) is that it helps make portions of the state obsolete. With little or no vehicle ownership, the requirement for drivers' licenses, vehicle registration, titling, and insurance largely goes by the board. California legislators are giddy about their stylish new regulatory permits for driverless cars; they've also unwittingly sounded the death knell for the DMV. Few tears will be shed...

Of course, there's always a good chance for regulatory buffoonery. It seems quaint now, but the English Parliament passed a series of Locomotive Acts, culminating in its 1865 decree that all self-propelled automobiles be restricted to 4 miles per hour in the country and 2 miles per hour in city limits. Known as the "Red Flag Act", it required all vehicles be manned by a crew of three, as well as a pedestrian to walk ahead of a laden vehicle with a red flag to warn the world of their non-traditional existence.

The rules made a certain amount of sense (particularly to those in the horse-drawn carriage industry), but for 37 years they thwarted the United Kingdom's embrace of the automobile. There will almost certainly be an equivalent of the Red Flag Act (is there any more appropriate name?), and administrators with ties to those heavily invested in the status quo will make political hay by convincing us that the rules "just make sense." Fair warning.

In the end, though, the force of the autonomous individual is a universal solvent, and the self-driving car will be a cheerful addition to our modern age. Buckle up, it's going to be an exciting ride...