Autonomous Vehicles Will Bring the Rise of 'Spam Cars'

Are frivolous driverless cars going to one day clog the roads?

Jun 18 2014, 2:10pm
Image: BanBillboardBlight

The ultimate goal of self-driving cars is to remove the driver altogether, a move that'll free up the roads and create an entirely new aspect to the sharing economy. But the move towards automation could also inadvertently lead to the creation of a fleet of annoying, constantly-roving, empty vehicles. Spam cars, if you will.

It's an idea that was raised by Reddit user CombustibleCitrus on the SelfDrivingCars subreddit, and it's one that serious thinkers in the industry have already pondered:

"If driverless cars become common, I wonder if there's the possibility that some types of unmanned vehicles could become a nuisance. Will our neighborhoods be patrolled by driverless ice cream trucks, food trucks, vending machine trucks and Google Streetview cars all day long? What about driverless billboard trucks? What's to stop them from clogging up the highways during rush hour?," the Redditor wrote.

With driverless car tech still essentially limited to Google's pilot project, some small cities in Europe, and a model city near Detroit, it's hard to see this as a real-world problem anytime soon, especially considering that even the most basic of driverless cars will likely cost six figures when the tech becomes available to consumers. But we've seen time and time again that today's expensive, rare technology becomes commonplace and cheap with scale. 

Image: Google

Chunka Mui, a driverless car expert and author of The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Startups, told me in an email that there's often a race-to-the-bottom with new technology, in which potentially bad actors overshadow (or at least dim out) a technology's legitimate, world-changing uses. He says we've seen this with television content (low-brow reality TV) and email spam, and we've also seen it in app development (Flappy Bird clones) and drone aerial photography (unskilled pilots starting businesses without regard for the future of the tech).

"It will probably happen with driverless cars, too, unless we’re smarter as a society about it," Mui told me in an email. "One man’s obnoxious rolling billboard will be another’s smart, location- and observer-driven expression protected by freedom of speech. This possible outcome doesn’t outweigh the safety and resource use benefits of driverless cars but it does yell out for us to think deeply about the larger implications of the technology."

That's if we think of spam cars as inherently annoying. One would hope that there's not going to be roving Make-Your-Penis-Longer pharmacies, but you never know. More likely, we'll see something closer to what the Redditor suggested, with roving robotic grocery stores, food trucks, clothes stores, and vending machines. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

As for the fear that driverless spam cars will cause more traffic jams, that's likely a baseless fear, too. Driverless cars are expected to greatly reduce traffic overall and, whether they're spamobiles or not, they should drive more rationally than humans. There is, however, the fear that cars could be hacked to cause gridlock, which is another issue altogether

And, sure, driverless car technology is very expensive at the moment, but the second you entirely remove a human from the equation and start thinking about designing "spam cars," for lack of a better term, the cost-cutting possibilities come into sharp focus.  


"One man’s obnoxious rolling billboard will be another’s smart, location- and observer-driven expression protected by freedom of speech."

"Like the Google prototype, when you reimagine vehicles for a specific purpose from the ground up, you can eliminate a lot of unneeded elements that come from legacy design ideas or general-purpose functionality (like steering columns and brakes or even the size of semi truck containers, which are that big in order to take full advantage of the cost of drivers)," Mui said. "In terms of big disruptive effects, you should think about the impact of driverless on retailing, supply chain and logistics. Delivery drones are the tip of the iceberg.  Work backwards all the way to the factory and consider all the steps that can be reimagined given the existence of driverless technology."

Without need for a driver, police camera cars could become much smaller, and, therefore, cheaper. Grocery store trucks could be essentially one large moving refrigerator. Rolling billboard trucks, which are already somewhat common in cities, could automatically change their messages based on what neighborhood they're in, and could be little more than a video board, some wheels, and a navigation sensor.

Mui isn't the only one thinking about this. Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT's Center for Digital Business and author of The Second Machine Age, told me that there's going to be a proliferation of driverless cars designed to do relatively menial tasks, like running to the store for you (or becoming the store itself).

"You will see lots of opportunities for 'low value trips' like picking up some toothpaste from the drugstore," he told me. "I think we're going to see congestion pricing as a result."

Uber, a company that is clearly angling to become the driverless car taxi, already has the right idea with surge pricing. Eventually, in Brynjolfsson's scenario, it might cost twice as much to get a toothbrush right before bedtime. 

Of course, there's every possibility that people end up using driverless cars much as they drive today—that is, to get around town. The technology is going to automate the driver, but it might not automate everything else. John Villasenor, a fellow at Brookings who studies technological innovation, tells me that he doesn't see driverless cars ever being cheap enough to be used for frivolous reasons.

"It costs very little today to hire someone to drive a regular car, yet we don't see the streets clogged with 'spam traffic,'" he told me. "Among other things, this is because the car itself costs quite a bit of money to purchase and operate, and that will still be true as cars become more autonomous."