How Will Self-Driving Cars Change Teenage Culture?

The introduction of the family car in the 20th century led to unexpected consequences, including a rise in teenage pregnancies. The emergence of the driverless car in the 21st century also portends major changes in adolescent culture, ranging from the legal drinking age to patterns of school attendance.

Michael Petrilli, an award-winning writer and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank based in Washington, DC., suggests that we haven't really given much thought to how auto-piloted cars will change the teen (and tween) years—especially since most adolescents are ready for independent mobility long before they are qualified to operate a car.

Writing in EducationNext, Petrilli contemplates the near future:

If a robot can drive teens around town more safely than teens themselves, might states push back the "manual-driving" age to 21 or later to wait until young people's brains are really up to the task? Such a policy is politically infeasible now because of the interest in allowing those 16 and up to get themselves to their jobs. But with a computerized chauffeur, that's no longer a problem. (Of course, it will be a while until everyone has an autonomous auto, and until every road is ready for them, too.)

Let's take this thought experiment even further. If teenagers didn't need to "drive" their own cars—if they were no longer allowed to drive their own cars—might we be able to eliminate the drinking age? Or move it back down to 18, where it used to be in many places? In the 1980s, Uncle Sam gave states incentives to raise it to 21 because of a concern about drunk driving. (Teenagers have famously bad judgment, weak self-control, and proclivities toward recklessness.) But once Google becomes a designated driver, that rationale goes away….

Schools will need to respond to these big changes, too. It's inevitable that they will eventually purchase "driverless buses." …. Already the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is preparing to require "connected vehicle" technology on school buses (gadgets that allow vehicles to talk to one another in order to avoid crashes). Eventually, driverless buses will surely be seen as the safer alternative.

But the advent of driverless cars will change school routines as well. Imagine carpool lines without parents. Seventh graders arriving at middle school dances in their own rides. High school seniors spending their weekends at bars. "Car-key kids" instead of "latch-key kids." (Will schools allow kids' cars to park themselves nearby, or must they return home until pickup time?)

This might sound fanciful, but it could all be a reality before today's kindergartners walk across the graduation stage. Strap on your seat belts. It's going to be a wild ride.