While Bloomberg argues the power consumption of these vehicles will drop significantly over the long term, I’m not sure precisely how true that is. Many of the components in self-driving cars are integrated systems for computer vision and various types of sensors. In traditional semiconductors, there’s a long trend of miniaturization and per-transistor power cuts–but we don’t always see equivalent progress in other fields. To put it differently: If radar systems had been able to cut power consumption and increase range and detection speeds the way semiconductors have scaled up from their earliest beginnings, your phone would have a radar that could see a grasshopper jump from 20 miles away while drawing a watt or two of power, tops.
The total impact of self-driving technology is estimated to cost 5-10 percent of total fuel efficiency. Ironically, this is one of the major and most critical differences between a computer and a human: Your brain is fantastically power-efficient, blowing any artificial equivalent out of the water.
Companies are planning to introduce their first self-driving cars in the next few years, though the technology won’t go mainstream for quite some time. A person making the median household income in the top 25 US metropolitan areas can only afford to make a new vehicle purchase at the recommended “20/4/10” rule (20 percent of your income as a down payment, four year loan, 10 percent of income for interest and insurance) in one of them. As Fortune pointed out earlier this year, a person making median income in Miami can afford a 13,577 vehicle. The average new vehicle in that area is 35,368 including sales tax.