Children in a Self-Driving World

Following up on Kyle Jepson’s second question from a few weeks ago:

My wife and I used to use Zipcar, but we had to give it up once we had our second kid because carrying two carseats the mile-and-a-half to the nearest Zipcar was just not possible. For the same reason, we never use Uber or Lyft — installing and uninstalling carseats is a pain, and having to lug them around with us at the store/park/church/etc. is even worse. But we love riding the bus and train because carseats aren’t required, so our kids can just sit on our laps or on the seat next to us. In a world where nobody owns a car (which is the world I’m rooting for), what will child safety look like? Will it be like public transit, where things like carseats aren’t needed, or will some other solution be needed (like perhaps having carseats available in the trunk)?

This seems like a scenario where the goal is pretty clear, but the question is how long it will take to get there.

Utopia

The goal is that driving would be basically as safe as taking the train and nobody would need seatbelts or carseats anymore.

That world seems pretty distant, if only because human drivers will still be rear-ending self-driving cars for decades to come.

The Future

In the nearer term, the goal is to be able to hail a self-driving taxi with as many adult seats and child carseats as necessary.

And in some future world where there are lots and lots of self-driving cars swarming around, each with different configurations, this isn’t too hard to imagine. It’ll be kind of like how Airbnb lets me select the number of bedrooms and bathrooms I need for a rental, plus whether it has to be pet-friendly, have a pool, have WiFi, free parking, a fire extinguisher, and a host of other “amenities”.

Problem solved.

Except, of course, even that world might be a little ways off. In the meantime what will happen?

The Short-Term

My best guess is that parents will be out in the cold. Fully autonomous vehicles will come first for commercial applications — long-haul trucking and deliver vehicles — and then for urban transportation in a several geo-fenced areas.

Children do not factor largely into either of those scenarios.

As the parent of an infant, this is frustrating, but it’s also just economics. The first waves of self-driving cars will be like Uber but without a driver, and, as Kyle points out, Uber is not optimized for kids. Parents don’t have enough money and kids are too small and disruptive a user base.

The Law

One thing that might change is the law.

In California, where I live, children have to be in a carseat until age eight. Most parents who use a car regularly own or lease it, and the carseat cost isn’t usually a burden.

But if the world moves to self-driving cars, the law might become a burden and parents might lobby to lower the carseat age.

It might even be safer for children. Who knows, maybe riding with an adult seatbelt in a self-driving car that rarely crashes will be safer than riding in a booster seat with a harried mother or father who wrecks the car regularly.

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