Here we are in the future year that Marty McFly went back to and the one accurate prediction those movies made were that, here in the future, everybody knows what a Gig is. Course, if they had gotten the scene correct, back in the eighties, then Griff's gang would have been constantly checking their text messages while chasing Marty around the town the square. There would have also been a horde of on lookers filming the chase with their phones and someone would have posted a picture of Griff's arrest and claimed police brutality, just before exclaiming, "hey I got a thousand likes!" Something I wonder about even more is, if you think about it, Griff's gang might have been too busy on social media to even bother with that whole chase in the first place.
Yeah I know, all that sounds like nit picking and maybe it is. I will defend myself by saying that the little things are sometimes the most important and, when you're talking about the impact of technology on the future, more times than not, it is everything. You have to consider that the technology, that we all take for granted today, was invented in the same era that those movies were made. They were all the result of a revolution that began even earlier with the Apollo Program but, it was during the 1980's that the practical uses of that technology were born. So Back To the Future did have the ability to see a few things coming but, like most such predictions, it focused on the big changes, most of which never came to pass, and missed the little changes to our lives that added up to asking questions like, would such a chase around a town square even be as likely in 2015 as it would be in 1955? The reason I think the answer is "no" is not because we don't have flying cars and hover boards but, because the fictional 2015 lacked cell phones. The lack of one and the existence of the other has changed some very fundamental ways in how we live and it has also, mostly, gone unnoticed. It is also very ironic how the existence of the internet would have impacted Doc Brown's single biggest piece of future technology, the flying car.
For people who like boring math and piles of data, that could put the nerdiest mathematician asleep, a recent trend has been noticed. Kids are waiting longer to get a driving permit now. When I turned 16, the age when you are allowed to drive here, it was considered automatic by people. You went and took your test, got your permit, and usually your first beat up piece of crap car. That usually went hand in hand with your first part time job to pay for said POS. Not everyone did it but, the bulk of people did and it became a ritualized piece of Americana that was so ingrained in our psyche that we could never imagine it being any other way. If you could not participate in this ritual, you had to beg rides from everyone who did because, the car, the piece of technology that created this culture, was also the nail that held our social lives together. Most humans want a social life because ultimately that means, um, well, sex!
This is no longer true. Computers, laptops, cell phones, and the internet have changed this. Kids no longer require hanging out in a parking lot, a malt shop, an empty field, or somebody else's basement in order to have a social life. Now they can do it from the comfort of their own basement. Since our new interactive media does not require things like car insurance or costly repair bills, or a permit, it's a lot cheaper to maintain and use. That means kids are staying at home longer, going to college from their bedrooms, and not seeking part time work which creates an entirely different set of conditions that society has to figure out. This means that had Griff and Marty Jr been in the real 2015 the scene would have been more like the bully threatening to post compromising pictures of Marty Jr on his Facebook page under the title "Butthead, share if you like."
All of us have seen these changes even if we've never fully thought about the conditions that created them and what the consequences are. That might seem like old hat to us but, what is coming is far more bizarre than Doc Brown's flying DeLorean. You see, in another 30 years, kids might not have to even worry about getting a driving permit because, nobody may have to drive any longer. This year, the Back To The Future Year, cars still do not fly but, the very first self driving cars have finally hit the market. The technology that makes this possible is also nothing new. That is why it is somewhat ironic that what kept them off the market for the past five years was something that Doc Brown said would be abolished in 2015, lawyers. There were on going disputes over the various technologies being used, particularly GPS. The very day after the last lawsuit was settled, the cars went on the market.
We've all seen how technology gets introduced and so it is easy to assume that these first vehicles are going to be luxury novelty items for the folks that simply have to have the latest thing. Most of us will be content to sit around and see how they work. Some of us are probably thinking that they never will and write it off as a passing fad. Personally, I believe that these vehicles are not only here to stay but, they will be standard by the time that today's children get ready to use a car. I see a day coming when people will say, "you're driving your car? That's dangerous." The reason I think this, is because this technology is not new and it's actually been thoroughly tested over the last thirty years. It is not only safe but, efficient. GPS was just the last ingredient needed to really make it practical. I also think it's going to change our lives in ways that are too numerous to name. It's a lot of those little thing that I was talking about. Just to name a few....
Say Goodbye to Speeding Tickets: The idea of the self driving car was born of a plan (that is still the goal) to turn the limited access highway (the US interstate system for example) into an automotive railroad of sorts. No human driving allowed, a computer runs the entire network, and the speed will be a constant 100mph. There will be no traffic snarls either since it will always be, literally, bumper to bumper. The computer will maximize the use of space and with constant speed there will be no need for lane changes. It will all be centrally controlled which will mean there will no longer be any need of code enforcement. This will impact things well beyond worrying about where the speed trap is. A lot of community governments use speeding fines to offset costs and keep their coffers up without raising taxes. They will be forced to go back to doing things like writing tickets for spitting on the sidewalks. This might not just reduce the size of most police forces but, get cops out of the cars and back to literally walking the beat. That alone would be a major change in how society functions.
What Is Local: If you know exactly what your speed is going to be and you do not have to drive your car, then suddenly, a lot of distant places are practical to visit in a short amount of time. A trip from LA to New York is roughly 2800 miles. So you know that is 28 hours. Not only does the speed make it so but, you no longer have to make stops because, you can sleep in your car. Have to pee or get food? Well how long before the "Travel Car" is born with a small fridge and a bathroom? While 28 hours in a car does seem a little excessive what about a 600 mile trip of only six hours? That means Atlanta to Disney World is suddenly just a day trip you can do over a weekend. Chicago to New Orleans is suddenly easily doable without flying down. That changes more than just what is local to you, it means cars are now competing with airlines. It means the hotel business is going to take a serious hit and go the way of the record and book stores. What about drive thru's and gas stations? Will there be more or less of them? How about not just telecommuting from home but doing so while taking a cross country trip?
Liability Insurance: Even if cars become as smart as Kitt on TV's Knight Rider it still cannot prevent accidents from happening. Now there is a new question on the table. If your car has an accident and you are not driving it, who is at fault? You? The guy who programed your computer? The car company that sold it to you? Nobody at all? Is the fault of the latest Window's upgrade that has a lot of bugs in it? I guess it's time to go buy an I-Car.
Valet Parking: If the computers can control bumper to bumper traffic at 100mph then parking a car even closer is no sweat at all. If you do not have to get out of your vehicle after it is parked then you don't need room to open the doors. Suddenly, parking lots can hold a lot more vehicles since our current lots are designed to accommodate those of us with the worst parking skills. This might reduce the amount of needed acreage for parking spaces, something that places like New York City will, no doubt, take quick advantage of. That would be just the tip of the iceberg though. If your car can drop you off at the front entrance and go park itself, this will bring back the hey day of the front door. As cars became more common, people stopped using the front door in favor the side doors that were usually closer to the parking area. Buildings built after World War Two began showing designs to accommodate these habits and self drive is likely to change the way buildings are designed, yet again. We might actually begin to see those art deco buildings envisioned in the futuristic movies of the 1930's.
Viral Threats: Today, the computer virus is, at worst, an annoyance akin to someone breaking in your desk drawer. It can be expensive, life altering, and definitely frustrating. Most of the time, such malicious software only amounts to a bad prank. As houses become even more automated and dependent on the computer network, this is changing though. We now have "smart appliances" that download updates from the internet and can even be remote controlled with aps on your phone. Well guess what, the first computer virus written specifically to screw up a microwave oven has already been found. What happens when your smart car catches a cold? The consequences could be lethal and for more than just the passengers of your vehicle. It might become a very real problem in the future. The only good news here is, unlike the internet that came about in a haphazard method, at a time when a computer virus was never even dreamed of, we now have experience in dealing with them and subsequent technologies have been better at keeping malicious code out.
Of course, those are only a few examples but, what we really need to think about are not just the obvious direct consequences. Plug your own life into those scenario's above, and the ripples that these changes make are what is important. Just like the ritual of the 16th birthday (in the US at least) was created by the car, what will self drive create? We've all seen movies with robots and, just maybe, we had them in our lives all along. Many people already name their cars but, when we get back to the even more distant future, will naming a vehicle become less honorific and more practical? What if our cars are now becoming the robot workers we always envisioned? Is it really such a stretch to imagine a day when you order your groceries on line and then send your car to pick up the order? How will that change your home life? Will the day come when you not only send your car to pick the kids up from school but, you won't even have to remember to send it, the car just knows because it downloads the school schedule? Will the day come when you think your car was stolen only to have a policeman ask you, "you sure it was stolen? You sure it didn't just download the wrong schedule?" It is something to consider.