Predicting the future of Transportation — Thoughts on Elon Musk’s “Master Plan, Part Deux”.

Just as everyone else, I’m deeply impressed by the achievements of Mr. Musk. He recently put out his Master Plan II , a 10-year-plan for Tesla where he explains how he will expand the reach of electric self-driving cars to all major segments, and integrate it to a completely off-grid power system for your home. Clean, autonomous cars for everyone. It is a mind-blowing read, and it brought to my attention a subject I hadn’t thought for a long time.

I have somewhat of a special insight on this subject, you see. About 7 years ago, I had this strange obsession with an idea in my head: today’s cars are poorly designed.

To be fair, it’s not really that car designers suck. They are limited by one grand hypothesis that dominates all design decisions: “cars are driven by humans”. This constraint alone can be blamed for the sorry state of our current transportation system: frustrating traffic jams, high death rates, hard to find parking spots, etc. And a deeply inefficient system as well: cars are parked 95% of the time. So 7 years ago, I started fantasizing that this issue could be solved by eliminating the human driver. This was long before I even knew that Artificial Intelligence (AI) existed, much less that it could safely drive cars. Thus, my solution was to add rails to all streets, and put all cars on them, guided by a simple algorithm that brakes when too close to the next car. Yes, I know it’s a lame solution, but it was just fun to imagine what were the implications of such a change. This thought experiment permitted me to imagine all types of different scenarios throughout the years.

What follows is an exercise in futurism that constitutes my prediction on the future of transportation. I won’t bother with the details, but jump straight to conclusions. So buckle up*:

Self-driving car usage will slowly start to grow, but in exponential fashion. Some few initial actors will dominate, like Tesla (their own fleet) and Google+Automaker (“Android style”), but market share will rise steadily. Soon, a majority of cars will drive themselves. There will be a noticeable inflection point, probably around 60% or 70%, self-driving cars will prove so convenient to society, that even legislators will understand the huge benefits of it (along with the risks of continuing to allow people to drive) and laws will be passed that prohibit human-driven cars (HDC) in urban areas. Lots of car industry lobby will ensue (which may delay adoption). A 100% adoption, I predict, will occur around 2040. The direct effects (some already mentioned in this article) will, probably, be:

  • Car crashes will be brought down to virtually zero.
  • Therefore, getting a car insurance policy will stop making sense; the insurance industry will completely shift strategy, either to insuring the new system (insuring software “failure” or other new liabilities) or actually downsize. I’m not the first to say this.
  • Rent-a-car companies will have to repurpose themselves as well. Car sharing will surge to unprecedented levels, and rent-a-car companies will have to move to this new model or die. I predict that the biggest actors will disappear, unable to adapt quickly enough. Tesla, as explicitly stated by Musk, will innovate on this field with the Tesla Fleet. Uber will definitely be a relevant actor as well.(Edit: now it actually is).
  • A huge improvement will appear down the road: a unified system to share information between the different self-driving systems, along with vehicle-to-vehicle communication. This is a game changer, as knowing the exact location of all other cars can improve navigation hugely. The result will be shorter times of arrival and reduced traffic congestion.

Entering this new automotive belle époque, where cars don’t crash and people don’t drive them, car design will evolve dramatically. The primary design constraint mentioned before just vanished, therefore:

  • Cars will lose the iconic shape that everyone knows them for nowadays. I predict that much simpler geometric shapes, sphere-like designs maybe, will dominate future designs. (Or maybe a rocket-shaped cars… who knows.)
  • As there is no human driver, there is no need for a driver seat or the common 2-row seat disposition inside cars. All sorts of new designs will emerge, sitting people sidewise, cars with beds, and (my personal favorite) cars with exercise devices inside them. Surely, the “office car” for longer journeys will be very popular.
  • As cars won’t crash anymore, all the chassis and beams embedded inside doors will soon become redundant. Cars will become as lightweight as possible. This will dramatically decrease the price of cars, increasing adoption even further.
  • Guess what? No more honks needed! (YES!) Or bucles! Or mirrors! Or front lights! Cars will be easier to maintain than ever. This will have great repercussions in the repair shop industry.
  • There will be a new, specific Operating System (OS) for cars (maybe carOS? AutoOS?). Probably new protocol layers to connect robustly to the Internet will appear as well.
  • A tough one: I’m not sure that these new designs will have 4 wheels. We’ve yet have to see any self-driving motorcycles, but I believe 3-wheeled and self-balancing 2-wheeled vehicles, being safer than before en route, will increase in popularity.

A bold prediction: the “monopod” vehicle, that transports only one person and is optimized for being as small as possible, will be the most used vehicle. Thousands of these monopods will swiftly roam down the streets.

As cars will now be unrecognizable from their predecessors, we’ll start calling them self-driven vehicles (SDV). Along with the cars themselves, the “business models” behind SDV usage will also shift. How we use them, share them, and purchase them will change. Most notably:

  • Most SDVs on the streets will become “public transportation”. Private and public transportation will become unrecognizable from each other. Privately owned cars will become a luxury for the few.
  • The biggest SDV companies will be Software or Technology firms, not car automakers.
  • Commercial transportation will change greatly. The fixed cost of delivering a product, or a commodity (like petrol), will diminish, therefore smaller commercial SDVs will appear, that will replace today’s bigger trucks. It possess an advantage for companies to be able to deliver smaller quantities with more frequency, in a “just in time” fashion. Goods will get there faster (with virtually no stops), and a lack of crashes will mean no lost goods, stolen goods will diminish as well, making transportation very cheap.

Society at large will be transfigured by a renewed transportation system. I predict that the following trends will emerge:

  • Home delivery will become a much easier, faster, convenient and cheaper distribution alternative. E-commerce will rise to be the ultimate #1 shopping channel. The landscape of retail stores will change dramatically. Amazon (if it continues its current path) will become a worldwide retail juggernaut like no other seen before (Drone delivery will add to this trend).
  • All SDVs will probably be electric vehicles by the time they become mainstream, and probably powered by clean energy sources. The environmental benefits of this change will be ridiculously huge. A secondary effect: noise pollution will go down in cities, increasing quality of life. (no honks, remember?)
  • A massive amount of current jobs will cease to exist. Namely, truck drivers to begin with, but later car insurance related jobs, car repair professionals, driving teachers, chauffeurs, etc. All these jobs will go to the construction and maintenance of the system.
  • Another bold one: The subway will become obsolete. Tunnels could be repurposed for underground roads or industrial activity, even for residence. As public transportation at large will evolve, I predict that vehicles carrying less people will be favoured over the ones carrying more people. It’s likely that busses and trains as we know them will become obsolete for passenger transportation. (Mr. Musk himselfs advocates shrinking the size of busses).
  • The total area used for streets and highways will diminish in cities. Less kilometers of road will be needed thanks to the increased efficiency of the new overall system. Considering that roads will have a more steady flow of vehicles, roads and pedestrian passageways will become very distinct things. Something remarkable will happen: we will have less roads and less cars, but get faster to wherever we go, for less money.
  • Road signs will be a thing of the past, and cities will have much less “visual contamination” (if these spaces are not taken by advertising hopefully). I predict that there will be a distinct point in time when we will stop using traffic lights. Pedestrians will just tap a button somewhere (maybe on their new intelligent devices?) and magically, traffic will stop to let you through.
  • Cities will be much more convenient and livable, thanks to improved lifestyle with easy transportation, less roads and noise. The percentage of people living in cities will rise thanks to increased population density capacity. Cities will stretch much further than before. I envision many great cities with over 50 million residents. (maybe New York, Mexico DF, Paris, Sao Paulo… and many in China)
  • Any vehicle will become an ambulance on demand; the injured will get to hospitals much quicker.
  • No car crashes = no deaths = less expenditure in health. This will bring along huge change worldwide. Some statistics say that more than 20 million people are affected by car crashes every year, costing around US$500 billion globally. It’s interesting to notice that those affected are generally younger people, and more often in middle and lower-income countries. Imagine the effects on the global economy of those resources now devoted to production.
  • Guess what? Road rage might actually become a thing of the past!

Many more things will happen, that’s for sure. It’s interesting to imagine this future, and maybe realize that our entire lifestyles have been modeled around this one product, the car. Thus, I predict the self-driving vehicle to be as big than the iPhone and the iPad combined, if not one of the biggest paradigms shifts of mankind.

And all of this, thanks to a bunch of algorithms. We live in exciting times.

*I’d love to stop through the details, but it could take me forever to explain all the reasoning. Maybe I’ll come around to writing another article on the specifics. Indeed, it’s going to be fun to look back on this in 20 years’ time and see how much I got right. And of course, that pun was intended.

Thanks to Matthew Battistini for the lightning-fast proofreading and great comments.