Automated automobiles, what’s next?

Edit: Obligatory ‘Hello Reddit!

Since Google announced they were working on driverless automobiles in 2010, things have moved fast. In fact, by the end of 2013 automated cars had completed hundreds of thousands of miles on public roads without incident (except for one, where an automated car was tail ended).

But the question remains, where are they going? What’s next?

Driverless cars have gone from bulky, hacked-together, google-made prototypes, to sleek and beautifully designed vehicles. This is largely in thanks to smaller sensors and computers, as well as partnerships with companies like Audi.

Automated cars have gone from this…

google-driverless

To this…

audi-driverless

If people can overcome the peculiarity of self-driving cars, which when you consider the advantages outlined below, I believe they will – then driverless cars have the potential to be more disruptive to everyday life than the internet has been so far.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to driverless cars. Not everything I’ve outlined below is backed up by hard fact (although I’m sure a lot of it is). Instead, it’s the logical conclusion reached when you apply the processes of technology and capitalism to driverless cars.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way:

You’ll need a Bachelor of Computer Science… to be a mechanic

Being a mechanic will get a whole lot less… mechanic. Sure, cars will still need servicing, wheels will need changing and transmissions will need replacing, but mechanics are going to need to know a whole lot more about computers, both software and hardware. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see car garages with IT departments.

Edit: As redditor jcinterrante astutely pointed out, “The software will be written by the car companies, as will any software patches. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree in CS to install software.”

Bye-bye speeding tickets

As more and more cars become driverless, it simply won’t be efficient for policemen to try and catch people speeding – cars just won’t speed. Speed cameras will stay for a longer while, but will eventually be decommissioned.

Bye-bye taxi man

Currently, automated cars are only road-legal in Michigan, Nevada and California (as far as I’m aware). As well as this, there has to be a human behind the wheel at all times. However, as people become more comfortable with driverless vehicles, it will be too impractical for this to continue. Driverless cars will be able to drive without a ‘driving’ occupant.

So if you’ve had a few too many drinks and need to get home, or perhaps if you didn’t drive at all that day, you’ll be able to ‘call’ your car to pick you up and take you home. Sorry cabbies, I’m not getting in a strangers car if mine’s available.

Hello efficient travel

As driverless cars become more ubiquitous, travel, particularly on highways, will change completely. A much publicised benefit of automated vehicles is their ability to group together on highways and travel in very fast, very efficient and safe pods, much like a flock of birds. The video below is long, but illustrates the concept within the first 30 seconds.

It gets bigger…

Users, not owners

As I’ve argued before, ownership is becoming less of a priority in modern culture. Instead, people are becoming ‘users’.

The two main reasons for this are environmental and ease-of-living. 21st century products aren’t owned. You don’t own a Dropbox or Spotify. You use them. This trend was born of the web, and is starting to make its way into the real world.

Automakers are already struggling to sell to Gen Y, and meanwhile, car share services are booming.

As driverless car use grows, a large corporation, probably an innovative car company – we’ll call them Telsa – will offer driverless car subscriptions. Instead of owning a car, you will subscribe to different packages based on a number of variables:

  • Car quality, do you mind being picked up in a Corolla, or do you want a Ferrari?
  • Sharing, your neighbour needs to go to the shops at the same time as you, do you want to share a lift and pay half price?
  • Range, are you going down the road or across the state?
  • Time, do you have a scheduled commute, or will you need to be picked up at a moments notice?

The effects of Telsa*

*In case you didn’t read the above section, Telsa is our ‘fictional’ company that offers driverless car subscriptions.

Fewer Cars

Think about your car. It probably spends 80-90% of its time just sitting there, in your garage or on the side of the road. Telsa cars will constantly be in use, and as such, we’ll need fewer of them. Of course, we will still need a large number of cars to transport us during peak hour – but this is a problem that car sharing solves with relative ease.

Bye-bye parking (and parking inspectors)

Speaking of all of those cars just sitting there…

Telsa will try and be as efficient as possible, it will probably aim to have between 20-80% of its cars on the road at all times. Of course, they will have a large car storage where real estate is cheap. But on the whole, cars won’t need to park. Meaning no cars on the side of the road, no parking complexes, no parking tickets, hooray!

No need to fill up

Consumer-facing petrol stations will simply disappear. If petrol is still the main fuel source, all cars will be filled up (or charged) by the car subscription companies, like Telsa, at their storage centres.

Industry adoption

Automated vehicles will be used for shipping and agriculture, plus who knows what else. One ‘truck manager’ will be on the road with a convoy of 20 trucks. One ‘Farmer’ will manage 3 or 4 tractors across 5,000 acres of land.

No more dealerships (and far fewer car brands)

As more and more people subscribe to driverless cars, a number of car companies will either innovate or die. Driving a car will take the status of a leisure activity and sport, much like riding a horse today. The companies that survive will compete on customer service and usability:

  • Car share with Facebook friends only (or a future equivalent)
  • One click app for car pickup
  • In-car entertainment and Wi-fi.

Think today’s airliners, but on the road.

Of course, there will be a natural market segmentation, budget and high-end car subscriptions. However, on the whole, innovations in customer service and usability will decide the winners and losers.

And the world has changed

All these changes will affect two of the worlds largest industries, automotive and petroleum. Not to mention a whole bunch of secondary industries like mining.

I’m not any sort of economist (Wikipedia numbers incoming), but around the world there were over 806 million cars and light trucks on the road in 2007, consuming over 260 billion US gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Driverless cars are going to be big.

I’ve enjoyed writing this, but it is far from complete. If you have any suggestions for major points I’ve missed out on, or know of more reputable sources to back up what I’ve talked about, let me know in the comments. 

  • Eric

    You missed one: Pedestrians will be empowered like never before. Since cars will stop automatically when they sense a pedestrian in the road, people will start thinking of moving cars the way we now think of a pair of elevator doors closing, where just sticking your hand between the doors forces them to open again. Once cars are automated, it seems inevitable that at least some pedestrians will take advantage of the situation and step into the road wherever they please, stopping traffic.

    • James

      There is a way to stop that though, make it not worth the risk. AKA big fines.

      • Adrian

        And with cameras in all cars (sensors) fining the jaywalkers will not be all that hard!

  • Zach

    In the car sharing you state that there will be a need for fewer cars due to the fact that the majority of cars sit for 80-90% of their time. However true the numbers are here it does not change the fact that the majority of cars are also all active at the same time. People at least in the US are not likely to change their ways and start sharing a vehicle with some stranger because it is effective when they once had a vehicle to themselves or with friends/family.

    • bks

      I think this will be true at first, but eventually the economics will kick in. Owning a car is expensive. Owning a subscription that allows you 90% of the benefits of having a car at say, 25% of the cost or less, would eventually convert most people. Not to mention the large populations who live in cities (who already do this via taxis, Uber, and zipcar) Sure, some people will still want their one personal car, but it will be considered a luxury for those who care for it (or some variation of that, say owning one “fun” car and use a driverless car as their daily commuter instead of owning 2 car).

  • no

    And the ability for anyone to hijack your car and send you a different direction…

  • Tony

    The hotel industry will see change. Why stop traveling at night just to sleep? Bye bye Motel 6 and Holiday Inn.
    Also presumably insurance rates will fall drastically.

  • Fritz

    I own 5 taxicabs. This is going to be interesting.

  • MadDonkey

    This will also make existing public transport cheaper and more flexible. Actually, I don’t think that cars as we know them will stay for long if such services become common. There are usually many people travelling the same way, so we are likely to see more vehicles like minivans and bigger, at least in cities.