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The year is 2035, you've just spent a night out on the town with your friends, and you're ready to head home. You summon an autonomous vehicle through an app on your wearable, but when it pulls up to the curb, it's completely trashed! How could this happen? What do you do now?
Unfortunately, for users of existing car-sharing programs like Zipcar, this future may look a bit like their present. A 2012 study found that people didn't treat cars they rented with the same respect they would show to cars they owned. As one interviewee in the study said: “You can just beat the hell out of it; it's not your car… So if I destroy the suspension, so be it! Somebody will fix it. Not me." Others admitted to stealing objects left in the cars by previous renters, or using them as a space to do things like smoking that they wouldn't do in their own homes or vehicles.
Much has already been made about the wide range of activities that autonomous cars would allow people to do. Instead of sitting behind the wheel, riders could use the space as an extension of their office, getting work done on-the-go. Alternatively, it could be a mobile living room, giving riders the chance to catch up on Netflix or provide a dedicated time to read. Without the necessity for a driver's seat, autonomous vehicles could even function as roving bedrooms. A Japanese car-sharing company recently found out that some of their customers were already using cars for napping, albeit, while staying stationary.
Cars occupy a space between public and private: they share our roads and cities, yet offer a personal bubble separate from other people and vehicles. Cars can be anything from a necessary evil - a thing you sit in while in traffic; a physical expression of human freedom – as many teens and new drivers would agree; or a home – for people who prefer to be on the road, or don't have the option.
But all of that refers largely to cars that are owned, not borrowed. How we treat autonomous rental cars will be a bit more complex than the golden rule, as everyone's expectations will vary. A rented autonomous car could be compared to a hotel room – a shared space we're invited to treat personally – but considering autonomous cars likely wouldn't be cleaned after every use, that isn't an ideal customer experience.
It may be more helpful to think of a rented autonomous car as a purely public space, comparable to a bus or train car, where people are still generally well-behaved while riding them. But on public transit, while reading a book or talking on a cell phone are generally acceptable activities, blasting music and eating are frowned upon, which seem like unfair blanket restrictions in a car where the space isn't shared as intimately.
There's really no telling how people will use autonomous cars until people start using them. But with all the possibilities that they present, from drastically reducing accidents to cutting the amount of cars on the road, let's hope that they aren't made useless by people behaving badly.