Computer, Take The Wheel

Your alarm goes off. It’s 7am and you have a busy day at the office. You get up, shower and dress, stand by the kitchen counter and sip some coffee while you scan the news on your iPad Flex. You then grab your sunglasses, put the iPad in your pocket and head out.

Your usual pod shows up. Paul and Alex are already on so you say hi and move over to your seat. If you wanted to, you could have paid the extra $250 a month for a personal pod, but you decided it’s just not worth it. Besides, you have a thing for Alex.

You check your messages and respond to a couple of questions from your team in India. Twelve minutes later you arrive at your office. It’s Tuesday and you came in for your weekly hang out with the local team.

Notice something? There was no driving to the office. You shared a door-to-door, on-demand, comfortable ride with a couple of people from your neighborhood. There was also no parking, no fueling with either gas or electricity, no tolls, no insurance, no coordination and no stress whatsoever.

If you could comfortably ride anywhere, whenever you wanted, in a vehicle driven by a machine, would you? Surveys say that most of us would not, but then again most of us distrust new things we don’t understand, so let’s not rely on surveys overmuch.

This essay will attempt to provide a layman’s terms overview of what our transportation future holds. No “ecosystems”, “platforms” and “innovation” in these pages — there are enough of those around already.

But first thing first: Is it real? Are autonomous vehicles coming?

Yes. It is real. Technologically, we can design and build autonomous vehicles (henceforth AVs). Google’s cars have been running around for years, and Local Motors just released Olli, the self-driving minibus. But what makes this trend more than just a fad, is the fact that virtually every traditional car manufacturer has stated publicly that they intend to produce AVs in the coming years.

And that’s not the whole story. In order to understand what the future holds, we need to observe additional new and complementary trends:

  • Clean energy (low/zero emissions) — Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, electric cars can be charged almost anywhere, as long as electricity is around — no need to build and maintain gas stations.
  • Ride sharing / commoditizing — Ride sharing and the disruption of the taxi industry by the likes of Uber, Lyft and Gett has created a cheap, ubiquitous way to travel without owning a vehicle. It has also enabled owners of vehicles to utilize them better (cars are used only 5% of the time owned).
  • Intelligence and connectivity — Both the speed of connections and the speed of computation have grown to the point where making intelligent decisions while in motion is already practiced as part of cars’ “assisted driving” functions.

OK, so let’s say it’s real. Why would I want to own one?

This, for most people, is the hard part — you wouldn’t.

What if riding around in other people’s cars was cheaper, faster and easier than owning your own car? Would you give up ownership then? Don’t answer that yet! Let’s keep going for a bit.

To help with this, think about AVs taking over current cars in three steps:

  • Step 1 — AVs show up, and are met with scepticism, regulation blocks, hacking and general disdain. A few brave people buy them and drive around, but it’s an oddity, not a “real thing”, kind of like electric cars were a few years ago.
  • Step 2 — Ride sharing companies start offering AV travel for cheaper than traveling with a driver (Local Motors are already on the way, and Uber are just waiting around the corner). People slowly accept and begin to actually like the new cars, but still own their own car.
  • Step 3 — Car manufacturers offer a new scheme — subscribe to their AV fleet and get Uber style rides anywhere at any time (Toyota will have one of their vehicles show up at your house within 2 minutes of ordering one, anytime, to take you anywhere, for $400/month). People realize that this is cheaper than owning, fueling, insuring, fixing and parking a vehicle, and adopt the new model.

Hopefully you now see the connection between ride sharing and AVs. All ride sharing companies are looking into self-driving cars (and all car manufacturers are looking into ride sharing companies). Can you blame them? Drivers are by far the most expensive asset for the likes of Uber and for logistics companies, so eliminating them will allow for better margins and lower costs of driving people and goods around (we’ll talk about the impact to people working in the car industry later on).

In and of itself, the “car ownership vs. ride sharing” debate has been closed for a while. Time after time it was shown that under moderate-to-low car usage requirements, using ride sharing is more cost-effective. And if AVs don’t require a driver to be paid, those rides will be even cheaper… Uber has pointed this out quite clearly, but then again they’re biased.

Yes, of course there will always be the “I’ll drive my own car, dammit!” people around. Those people will be slowly relegated to specific roads, specific times, and will have to pay exorbitant insurance fees.

OK, what else? What does an AV future look like?

First, sharing rides will become easy and fun.

Bus drivers are paid around $30,000 annually in the US. If you could use that money to fix up the bus each year, how fancy would it be?

Think of a scenario where you go to work by bus, but this is no ordinary bus: Firstly, it is smaller and has room for maybe 10 people. Second, it is extremely comfortable, with an individual seat and a table for each passenger. Third, it comes to pick you up from your doorstep. And finally, it drops you off at your exact destination.

Not a bad way to get to work, eh?

Going to a football game? Your phone will inform you of a promotion — buy two tickets and a fancy ride (TV screens instead of windows, beer on board etc.) will pick you up along with 30 other fans — expect a message 5 minutes before it pulls by your house. The same ride will drop you off at home — or at the afterparty — after the game.

Your child has a swim meet at 1pm on Saturday? The same bus which takes your kids to school, operating weekends and after-hours, will pick you up 30 minutes before the team gathering.

Still want your own “private” ride? Not a problem! Simply pay the extra fees and you will always be driven around by yourself or with your family.

This means something else as well…

The total number of cars on the road will decrease significantly.

It is almost impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy, just how many cars will roam the roads when AVs take over. But let’s try common sense as a good replacement: If today’s cars are utilized about 5% of the time, and AVs in a subscription model get utilized significantly more — let’s say 50% of the time, then the number of cars required to move us around should decrease proportionately, right?

Not exactly — we have to account for rush hour, when many cars are on the road. However we also know that there are many cars not on the road during rush hour. So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the total number of cars will halve, reducing the US inventory from approximately 240 million to 120 million. This is, by far, the most conservative view I’ve found during my research.

This, in turn, means that traffic flow will be easier and faster, getting you places without delays. This is also true because…

AVs are better drivers than humans.

AVs don’t get angry, or confused, or distracted. They don’t check their phones or eat a sandwich while driving. They don’t drink or smoke, and don’t do drugs. Their understanding of traffic rules is perfect. And, most importantly, they directly communicate with a “central command” and with each other at all times.

An estimated 90% of traffic accidents are caused by human error; Over 30,000 people die in traffic accidents in the US alone, each year. Take these two numbers and introduce AVs, and here’s the magic: about 27,000 lives saved annually — while making commute faster and easier!

Now would be a good time to mention the risk of using software to drive people around. Hacking, or the general threat of someone taking control over the car’s “brains” and making it do things you don’t want it to do, is a real risk and always will be. But consider: First, even traditional cars are increasingly dependent on software; And second, so many other aspects of our lives are being taken over by software and are just as subject to hacking. In the end, this is definitely a risk worth considering, but is not going to stop progress in AVs, much the same it hasn’t in other areas.

OK, great. But how do we get there from where we are today?

This is where things get messy, and harder to predict. There are a few aspects to how we move forward, and all of them are quite awkward for different reasons:

First, we have regulation. Governments small and large need to adjust the rule book to AVs — they need to legislate things like safety, communication and testing standards, liability and insurance plans, allocation of authority between government circles (federal, state, county etc.), and so on. As you can imagine, this won’t be easy, nor pretty, nor quick. But do not despair… remember Uber? They have already stated that as soon as they can get their grubby little hands on driverless cars, they’ll spread those out like wildfire. This is very important for government regulation, because if there’s one thing that Uber is good at, it’s giving “the rules” the finger. This trend is already in motion.

Second comes the industry. Logistics and transportation companies and car manufacturers are actively working to get commercial AVs on the road — AVs not only make transport cheaper, but can also spend nearly 24 hours a day on the road (excluding fueling/charging and loading/unloading), making deliveries faster and requiring fewer vehicles for the job.

Finally, there are we humans. Obviously this paper says we will grow accustomed to AVs, but it’s hard to say how quickly. Accidents will happen, and will have an adverse effect on AV adoption. But the forward movement will continue.

So, for a number of years, you’ll be driving alongside AVs. At first, they will be a strange and somewhat laughable oddity, being heavily regulated, limited in range and type of road and other such like inconveniences. But Uber and its ilk, alongside car manufacturers, are going to push AVs on people. They will even teach cars to think like humans in order to make the transition easier.

Then your Facebook friend will subscribe to a service which drives them around and swear it’s amazing. You’ll start to wonder.

And slowly over time, three things will happen: First, AVs will become cheaper as technology improves; Second, people will get used to the idea of being driven by a robot, and sharing rides; And third, regulation and traffic control will adapt to AVs and their particular requirements.

Cool. But what happens to all those people who work in related industries?

Many of them will lose their jobs. As Zach Canter points out (with many excellent direct links) in his blog, roughly ten million jobs (between manufacturing, dealerships, maintenance, transport, delivery and taxi) will face serious cuts, and industries like insurance, finance, parking and aftermarket will get torn apart and restructured, shifting around a cumulative $700 billion.


But, a few elements will “sweeten the pill” for us:

  • Many of the current jobs are low pay anyway so they join the movement towards a more automated environment which is already set in motion. Today’s car mechanic will become tomorrow’s 3D printing object designer, after an adjustment period
  • Disposable income will increase because less money is spent on cars, so poverty levels overall should decrease (or at least, the definition of “poor” will be “upgraded”)
  • Some industries are going to thrive on the change — primarily manufacturing and infrastructure

Let’s start with manufacturing: Today, each car maker has a few dozen models of cars manufactured by robots. But two things will change because of AVs. First, cars will become more use-case specific (think “cars for travel to work downtown” vs. “cars for out-of-town trips” vs. “cars for family outings” vs. “cars for delivery of goods”).

Second, cars will be designed without regard to drivers and with more focus on passengers. No wheel, steering column, gear shift, paddles or dashboard mean that the car’s interior will be geared for comfort rather than utility.

So, with a huge variety of car models, and a radically different (and evolving) design, many more people will be required to design, oversee construction, test and sell AVs. There are roughly 1.5 million people employed by car manufacturers today, and this number should significantly grow.

As far as infrastructure goes, at least for a few decades the entirety of the commute system will overhaul. Think about road signs… if you are not driving, and are indeed not looking out the window unless you feel like it, what’s the point of road signs? They will disappear as soon as their marketing value declines beyond a certain point. Road signs? Lane markers? Who needs those if there’s no driver? The local authorities, alongside commercial developers will reshape what our roads look like. The same will happen with parking lots — will they become temporary shelters for unused AVs? Will some convert to green spaces? Pretty unclear as of yet, but all pointing out to many people gainfully employed.

The changes that AVs bring about are endless. Car garages (who needs them when you don’t own cars?), toll roads, road construction, related government services, delivery services (combined with virtual reality, virtual grocery shopping is finally at our doorstep), the list goes on and on. From an economical perspective this is a minor industrial revolution, and we are all going to be its beneficiaries.

And let’s not forget the enormous benefits that this trend will bring to disabled people… As the Oatmeal points out, cheap access to disabled transport will bring immense joy to very many people who suffer from lack of mobility today.

OK, got it. Do I cut my driver’s license in half now?

Almost, but not just yet. Most car makers are now stating that they’ll have AVs around 2020, but as discussed above, we still have an unknown period ahead of us, during which AVs slowly penetrate the market as people, governments and businesses adjust to the new paradigm. Will it take 5 years? 15? 50? If I had to guess I’d err on the optimistic side and say it will happen before 2030, but that’s pure speculation.

One way or another, however, our future holds many wonderful luxuries where commuting is concerned. One day not too far away, you’ll regale your grandchildren with stories about how you used to go to the library, use phones that were connected to walls, and drive cars.