What if there was a way to get to Los Angeles from Phoenix that took as long as driving (about seven hours), but involved little to no effort, absolutely no crying babies, and no disgusting sick people? During those hours, you’d be free to entertain yourself any way you liked -– watching movies or TV, playing video games or reading, surfing Facebook, or Skyping. Heck, you could sleep the whole way there if you travel at night.
I think this new form of long distance travel will dominate the travel market over the next 20 to 30 years, forcing airlines to rethink their entire way of doing business. Eventually, this new way of traveling will cost a bit more than today's road trips.
The new technology that will usher in this age of affordable luxury travel is here, but not quite ready for lift-off. It’s the emerging market of driverless car technology, which will reshape and transform the United States in ways we haven’t seen since the dawn of the horseless carriage.
Let’s take a trip just a few years into the future, and see what this new form of travel will be like:
It’s 5:00 p.m. on Friday, and you and your spouse decide to visit LA. You pull out your smartphone, open your robo-car app, and order a luxury robo-car trip to LA. You indicate you’d like an Italian dinner, and choose a bottle of wine to go with it. In addition to dinner, the luxury car comes with reclining loveseat seating, a large video screen, an audio system that interfaces with your smartphone, and the standard robo-car docking port (more on that in a bit).
Within an hour (much less if you hadn’t ordered dinner), the luxury robo-car shows up at your house. It doesn’t look much like today’s Mercedes or BMW, though. It’s a streamlined vehicle, roughly the shape of a commuter van. It’s tall enough to stand up in comfortably. There’s just one sliding door on the left side and the vehicle has wraparound windows.
The interior resembles a small, but very comfortable, living room. There’s the loveseat, directly across from a large video screen on the wall where the windshield would normally be. In front of the loveseat is a coffee table, upon which is your dinner, in covered plates, sitting in recesses on the table, next to your wine and crystal glasses. Behind and under the seat is ample room for luggage.
You climb aboard, verify the destination via smartphone, which is now interfaced with the audio/video system, and away you go. The wraparound windows extend about halfway up the car and go across the ceiling; you can choose to keep them transparent or make them opaque. The video screen can slide down into a recess if you wish to view where you’re going.
And you’re off! The ride in the luxury robo-car of tomorrow is much smoother than today’s cars because the feel of the road is only important to human drivers. Self-driving cars don’t need nearly as much feedback.
You eat dinner, start the movie, and you’re already an hour or two away from home. Before long, though, one of you feels the call of nature. In a 20th century road trip, it would be time to start looking at the map for the next little town so you could find a place to make a pit stop. Not during this trip though, even though there’s no smelly toilet in your car.
You inform your smartphone that you need a restroom, and in less than 15 minutes, an indicator lights up telling you that relief is near. Another self-driving robo-car has been dispatched from a third-party service; it pulls up behind your car and then, with precision only available to modern robotics, there’s a light shudder as this new vehicle docks with yours.
There’s enough room on either side of your loveseat for you to stand up, walk to the back of your car and then pass through the docking port (which will be a standard feature in all long distance robo-cars) into a fully automated, fully mobile QuikTrip vehicle, complete with snacks, sodas, and, of course, a clean restroom. Basically, it’s a self-driving restroom with a few fancy vending machines.
Another nice feature of this convenience car is that the entire time you’ve been taking care of business, it has been refueling and/or recharging your luxury car. Part of the price of today’s travel includes enough fuel to get you to your destination, as well as use of the convenience car.
Before long, you're both back into your luxury ride. When you’re comfortably and safely seated, the convenience car undocks and heads off to its next appointment. QuikTrip, 7-Eleven, and their friends will quickly convert their businesses into large fleets of such vehicles that will spend many, many hours a day traversing the country’s highways, automatically providing refueling and restrooms.
Unlike road trips of years past, this pit stop didn't cost any time at all. In fact, you’ve shaved at least 20 minutes off your old record.
If we can accept the fact that cars of the future might well be tall enough to stand in, and come equipped with a safe and reliable docking feature, then an entire new way of travel suddenly comes into existence.
The 7-Eleven convenience car is just the simplest example. Imagine you’re someone who enjoys a walk after dinner: Gold’s Gym could offer a workout car, complete with stair climber and treadmill (and showers). Or perhaps you’d like a nice latte and a game of chess; just order up a Starbucks car. And there’s no reason you must enjoy your coffee in solitude.
Imagine another vehicle, nearly two lanes wide, with room for multiple cars to dock, and suddenly you have a fully stocked party bar complete with human staff, or a nightclub car with live music and dancing. This brings with it a form of in-person social interaction that’s never been possible during any kind of long-form trip (except possibly during the hey day of train travel).
So, sometime fairly soon, you could have a romantic couple’s night all the way to LA, or a wild and crazy party trip with no worries about drunk driving.
Here we can see the end of air travel as we know it today. If a 90-minute flight to Los Angeles really takes you nearly six hours due to security concerns and other inefficiencies; if the actual flight involves being crammed into a tiny chair with no leg room, crying babies, and sick people coughing onto you, then why would you ever choose that over being able to ride point to point in a luxury car with limitless choices for entertaining yourself?
We have many miles to go in order to reach this travel utopia, but I don’t see any impossible technical hurdles. Granted, my idea of docking robo-cars together is pretty far-fetched, but I’m pretty sure it’s feasible. If it’s at all achievable, I think it has the potential to open an incredibly huge new industry in the US. Even if it never comes to pass, I’m 100 percent convinced that self-driving cars will completely change the way everyone travels all over the entire world.
Want to ride along with me?
— Tad Donaghe is an amateur futurist and a software engineer with more than 16 years of experience.