The imminent appearance of self-driving cars on the roads of some countries will affect many areas of our lives and we owe it to ourselves to get up to speed on the issue. To begin with, there is no point in just pulling a face and saying “impossible”: intuition, imagination and common sense aren’t going to be much help either in trying to understand a scenario for which we have no previous experience.

A good way to start getting our heads round this is to read as many articles expressing different points of view as possible. Over recent days I have read the visions of the founders of two fierce competitors, Lyft and Uber on the matter: both companies will be hugely affected, but have very different approaches. Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, and regarded by some as one of the smartest minds around at the moment, is putting a lot of money into financing research at the Carnegie Mellon University to speed up development, and has made it absolutely clear to the men and women who currently drive for his company that they will soon be out of a job: “self-driving cars are the future, drivers are not”, and that if they are thinking about working after 2036 they should start thinking about changing profession. Logan Green, Lyft’s CEO sees things very differently: transport will increasingly become a service and that there will be fewer owner drivers, but that drivers will still be needed and that self-driving vehicles are not the future.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk, another stakeholder whose views many regard as visionary, says that the self-driving vehicles developed by his company, Tesla, will be available in the United States this summer; that’s just a few months away, far sooner than the 2036 date set by Travis Kalanick. Musk is the man who has done most to make electric cars a reality, producing vehicles that are faster accelerating than many top sports models, able to travel up to 500 kilometers on a single charge, as well as being attractive and practical. He believes that his cars will be self-driving, and that this will be done simply by installing special software, and all within a few months.

Granted: we are talking about partially self-driving, and at a price that puts them clearly in the luxury market, but they are just about here. In case anybody needs reminding about how things work: first the rich have them, then they are adapted to industrial use by trendsetters (in this case moving people and goods around) and then finally, they are made for the mass market. But this transitional process is taking place ever more quickly.

Whether this technology continues to be seen as science fiction, comes into use into 20 years, or appears on the market in a few months will affect many big decisions for a lot of people: which car to buy, whether to hold off on that purchase for a few years to see how things shape up, and whether to live in the city or the countryside. When manufacturers like Tesla are already providing this kind of technology, while others, like Mercedes-Benz, Audi or Toyota already have prototypes on the road, perhaps the moment has come to abandon prejudices based on “what we believe” a self-driving vehicle to be, still seeing it as science fiction, and simply start thinking that they are going to be around much sooner than we imagined.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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