13 min read

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider  

After AI autonomous self-driving cars have been abundantly fielded onto our roadways, one intriguing question that has so far gotten scant attention is how long will those self-driving cars last.   

It is easy to simply assume that the endurance of a self-driving car is presumably going to be the same as today’s conventional cars, especially since most of the self-driving cars are currently making use of a conventional car rather than a special-purpose built vehicle. 

But there is something to keep in mind about self-driving cars that perhaps does not immediately meet the eye, namely, they are likely to get a lot of miles in a short period. Given that the AI is doing the driving, there is no longer a dampening on the number of miles that a car might be driven in any noted time period, which usually is based on the availability of a human driver. Instead, the AI is a 24 x 7 driver that can be used non-stop and attempts to leverage the self-driving car into a continuously moving and available ride-sharing vehicle. 

With all that mileage, the number of years of endurance is going to be lessened in comparison to a comparable conventional car that is driven only intermittently. You could say that the car is still the car, while the difference is that the car might get as many miles of use in a much shorter period of time and thus reach its end-of-life sooner (though nonetheless still racking up the same total number of miles). 

Some automotive makers have speculated that self-driving cars might only last about four years. 

This comes as quite a shocking revelation that AI-based autonomous cars might merely be usable for a scant four years at a time and then presumably end-up on the scrap heap. 

Let’s unpack the matter and explore the ramifications of a presumed four-year life span for self-driving cars. 

For my framework about AI autonomous cars, see the link here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/ 

Why this is a moonshot effort, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/ 

For more about the levels as a type of Richter scale, see my discussion here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/ 

For the argument about bifurcating the levels, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/reframing-ai-levels-for-self-driving-cars-bifurcation-of-autonomy/ 

Life Span Of Cars 

According to various stats about today’s cars, the average age of a conventional car in the United States is estimated at 11.6 years old. 

Some tend to use the 11.6 years or a rounded 12 years as a surrogate for how long a car lasts in the U.S, though this is somewhat problematic to do since the average age is not the endpoint of a car and encapsulates a range of ages of cars, including a slew of cars that were retired at a much younger age and those that hang-on to a much older age. 

Indeed, one of the fastest-growing segments of car ages is the group that is 16 years or older, amounting to an estimated 81 million such cars by the year 2021. Of those 81 million cars, around one-fourth are going to be more than 25 years old. 

In short, cars are being kept around longer and longer. 

When you buy a new car, the rule-of-thumb often quoted by automakers is that the car should last about 8 years or 150,000 miles. 

This is obviously a low-ball kind of posturing, trying to set expectations so that car buyers will be pleased if their cars last longer. One supposes it also perhaps gets buyers into the mental mode of considering buying their next car in about eight years or so. 

Continuing the effort to consider various stats about cars, Americans drive their cars for about 11,000 miles per year. If a new car is supposed to last for 150,000 miles, the math then suggests that at 11,000 miles per year you could drive the car for 14 years (that’s 150,000 miles divided by 11,000 miles per year). 

Of course, the average everyday driver is using their car for easy driving such as commuting to work and driving to the grocery store. Generally, you wouldn’t expect the average driver to be putting many miles onto a car. 

What about those that are pushing their cars to the limit and driving their cars in a much harsher manner? 

Various published stats about ridesharing drivers such as Uber and Lyft suggest that they are amassing about 1,000 miles per week on their cars. If so, you could suggest that the number of miles per year would be approximately 50,000 miles. At the pace of 50,000 miles per year, presumably, these on-the-go cars would only last about 3 years, based on the math of 150,000 miles divided by 50,000 miles per year. 

In theory, this implies that a ridesharing car being used today will perhaps last about 3 years. 

For self-driving cars, most would agree that a driverless car is going to be used in a similar ridesharing manner and be on-the-road quite a lot. 

This seems sensible. To make as much money as possible with a driverless car, you would likely seek to maximize the use of it. Put it onto a ridesharing network and let it be used as much as people are willing to book it and pay to use it. 

Without the cost and hassle of having to find and use a human driver for a driverless car, the AI will presumably be willing to drive a car whenever and however long is needed. As such, a true self-driving car is being touted as likely to be running 24×7. 

In reality, you can’t actually have a self-driving car that is always roaming around, since there needs to be time set aside for ongoing maintenance of the car, along with repairs, and some amount of time for fueling or recharging of the driverless car. 

Overall, it would seem logical to postulate that a self-driving car will be used at least as much as today’s human-driven ridesharing cars, plus a lot more so since the self-driving car is not limited by human driving constraints. 

In short, if it is the case that today’s ridesharing cars are hitting their boundaries at perhaps three to five years, you could reasonably extend that same thinking to driverless cars and assume therefore that self-driving cars might only last about four years. 

The shock that a driverless car might only last four years is not quite as surprising when you consider that a true self-driving car is going to be pushed to its limits in terms of usage and be a ridesharing goldmine (presumably) that will undergo nearly continual driving time. 

For why remote piloting or operating of self-driving cars is generally eschewed, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/remote-piloting-is-a-self-driving-car-crutch/ 

To be wary of fake news about self-driving cars, see my tips here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/ai-fake-news-about-self-driving-cars/ 

The ethical implications of AI driving systems are significant, see my indication here: http://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/ 

Be aware of the pitfalls of normalization of deviance when it comes to self-driving cars, here’s my call to arms: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/normalization-of-deviance-endangers-ai-self-driving-cars/ 

Factors Of Car Aging 

Three key factors determine how long a car will last, namely: 

  • How the car was built 
  • How the car is used 
  • How the car is maintained 

Let’s consider how those key factors apply to self-driving cars. 

In the case of today’s early versions of what are intended to be driverless cars, by-and-large most of the automakers are using a conventional car as the basis for their driverless car, rather than building an entirely new kind of car. 

We will eventually see entirely new kinds of cars being made to fully leverage a driverless car capability, but for right now it is easier and more expedient to use a conventional car as the cornerstone for an autonomous car. 

Therefore, for the foreseeable future, we can assume that the manner of how a driverless car was built is in keeping with how a conventional car is built, implying that the car itself will last as long as a conventional car might last. 

In terms of car usage, as already mentioned, a driverless car is going to get a lot more usage than the amount of driving by an average everyday driver and be used at least as much as today’s ridesharing efforts. The usage is bound to be much higher. 

The ongoing maintenance of a self-driving car will become vital to the owner of a driverless car. 

I say this because any shortcomings in the maintenance would tend to mean that the driverless car will be in the shop and not be as available on the streets. The revenue stream from an always-on self-driving car will be a compelling reason for owners to make sure that their self-driving car is getting the proper amount of maintenance. 

In that sense, the odds would seem to be the case that a driverless car will likely be better maintained than either an average everyday car or even today’s ridesharing cars. 

One additional element to consider for driverless cars consists of the add-ons for the sensory capabilities and the computer processing aspects. Those sensory devices such as cameras, radar, ultrasonic, LIDAR, and so on, need to be factored into the longevity of the overall car, and the same applies to the computer chips and memory on-board too. 

Why Retire A Car 

The decision to retire a car is based on a trade-off between trying to continue to pour money into a car that is breaking down and excessively costing money to keep afloat, versus ditching the car and opting to get a new or newer car instead. 

Thus, when you look at how long a car will last, you are also silently considering the cost of a new or newer car. 

We don’t yet know what the cost of a driverless car is going to be. 

If the cost is really high to purchase a self-driving car, you would presumably have a greater incentive to try and keep a used self-driving car in sufficient working order. 

There is also a safety element that comes to play in deciding whether to retire a self-driving car. 

Suppose a driverless car that is being routinely maintained is as safe as a new self-driving car, but eventually, the maintenance can only achieve so much in terms of ensuring that the driverless car remains as safe while driving on the roadways as would be a new or newer self-driving car. 

The owner of the used self-driving car would need to ascertain whether the safety degradation means that the used driverless car needs to be retired. 

Used Market For Self-Driving Cars 

With conventional cars, an owner that first purchased a new car will likely sell the car after a while. We all realize that a conventional car might end-up being passed from one buyer to another over its lifespan. 

Will there be an equivalent market for used self-driving cars? 

You might be inclined to immediately suggest that once a self-driving car has reached some point of no longer being safe enough, it needs to be retired. We don’t yet know, and no one has established what that safety juncture or threshold might be. 

There could be a used self-driving car market that involved selling a used driverless car that was still within some bounds of being safe. 

Suppose a driverless car owner that had used their self-driving car extensively in a downtown city setting opted to sell the autonomous car to someone that lived in a suburban community. The logic might be that the self-driving car no longer was sufficient for use in a stop-and-go traffic environment but might be viable in a less stressful suburban locale. 

Overall, no one is especially thinking about used self-driving cars, which is admittedly a concern that is far away in the future and therefore not a topic looming over us today. 

Retirement Of A Self-Driving Car 

Other than becoming a used car, what else might happen to a self-driving car after it’s been in use for a while? 

Some have wondered whether it might be feasible to convert a self-driving car into becoming a human-driven car, doing so to place the car into the used market for human-driven cars. 

Well, it depends on how the self-driving car was originally made. If the self-driving car has all of the mechanical and electronic guts for human driving controls, you could presumably unplug the autonomy and revert the car into being a human-driven car. 

I would assert that this is very unlikely, and you won’t see self-driving cars being transitioned into becoming human-driven cars. 

All told, it would seem that once a self-driving car has reached its end of life, the vehicle would become scrapped. 

If self-driving cars are being placed into the junk heap every four years, this raises the specter that we are going to have a lot of car junk piling up. For environmentalists, this is certainly disconcerting. 

Generally, today’s cars are relatively highly recyclable and reusable. Estimates suggest that around 80% of a car can be recycled or reused. 

For driverless cars, assuming they are built like today’s conventional cars, you would be able to potentially attain a similar recycled and reused parts percentage. The add-ons of the sensory devices and computer processors might be recyclable and reusable too, though this is not necessarily the case depending upon how the components were made. 

For why remote piloting or operating of self-driving cars is generally eschewed, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/remote-piloting-is-a-self-driving-car-crutch/ 

To be wary of fake news about self-driving cars, see my tips here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/ai-fake-news-about-self-driving-cars/ 

The ethical implications of AI driving systems are significant, see my indication here: http://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/ 

Be aware of the pitfalls of normalization of deviance when it comes to self-driving cars, here’s my call to arms: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/normalization-of-deviance-endangers-ai-self-driving-cars/ 


Some critics would be tempted to claim that the automakers would adore having self-driving cars that last only four years. 

Presumably, it would mean that the automakers will be churning out new cars hand-over-fist, doing so to try and keep up with the demand for an ongoing supply of new driverless cars. 

On the other hand, some pundits have predicted that we won’t need as many cars as we have today, since a smaller number of ridesharing driverless cars will fulfill our driving needs, abetting the need for everyone to have a car. 

No one knows. 

Another facet to consider involves the pace at which high-tech might advance and thus cause a heightened turnover in self-driving cars. Suppose the sensors and computer processors put into a driverless car are eclipsed in just a few years by faster, cheaper, and better sensors and computer processors. 

If the sensors and processors of a self-driving car are built-in, meaning that you can’t just readily swap them out, it could be that another driving force for the quicker life cycle of a driverless car might be as a result of the desire to make use of the latest in high-tech. 

The idea of retiring a driverless car in four years doesn’t seem quite as shocking after analyzing the basis for such a belief. 

Whether society is better off or not as a result of self-driving cars, and also the matter of those self-driving cars only lasting four years, is a complex question. We’ll need to see how this all plays out. 

Copyright 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot  

This content is originally posted on AI Trends. 

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/]