Volvo already sells a popular driver-assistance option called City Safety for around $2,000, for example. It slams on the brakes if a distance-measuring laser or camera detects a vehicle or pedestrian in the car’s path. City Safety can prevent collisions completely at speeds of up to 30kph (18mph), and at higher speeds it softens the impact.The other reason that driverless cars will be safer is that many people will recoil at the very idea and demand draconian safety regulations to allow them on the street. For example, they could be programmed to drive below the prevailing speed limit on every street, and to have 'black box' devices recording camera, sensor and movement data (the Economist says the latter is already a requirement for robocars in Nevada). Combine that with software that stops the car whenever a pedestrian steps in front of it and you would have a total revolution in city transport. Currently pedestrians and cyclists are afraid of cars because we don't know if they will stop for us, so we cede the streets to them. But if you knew that a car was not going too fast and would stop for you, what's to prevent you stepping out to cross the road in front of it? This is the kind of technology that would make the fantasised, pedestrian-ruled version of 'shared space' actually a reality.
Unfortunately, that's also the reason why all shared space schemes would probably be removed as quickly as possible. Nobody in a driverless car would want to sit there like a lemon while pedestrians merrily parade past in front of it. After all, if you clear the road of everything except other driveless cars these things will be able to go very fast. Roads that feature cyclists weaving in and out of traffic will be awful for robocars, while Dutch-style segregated lanes will be just peachy. So if the technology takes off, expect to suddenly see a lot of enthusiasm for roads that completely segregate cars from bikes and pedestrians.
Expect big changes in how we relate to cars too. Taxis might become either obsolete, if everyone owns their own robocar, or universal if nobody does (they just won't have taxi drivers). After all, taxis are expensive largely because they have to transport the taxi driver around the whole time even when there are no passengers. Eliminate that fairly hefty weight and they could become economical for everyday use, so why own your own?
The technology is likely to be transformative, in other words, but it's not completely clear in which direction (I haven't even mentioned the implications for inter-city transport, which are likely to be just as huge but more predictable). Maybe we will see cities sort themselves into two camps, one of which imposes speed limits on robocars and lets cyclists and pedestrians boss them around, while the other segregates uses, punitively cracks down on jaywalking and tries to speed as many cars through their streets as possible. The strange thing about driverless cars is that they seem like they could deliver almost every urban transport utopia you care to imagine, and some of the dystopias too. [Update: Speaking of which, by popular demand (two people on Twitter) here's Johnny Cab!