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November 10, 2030:
“You should come up to New York for the day,” Amy said. “I’ll introduce you to your new account team.” John agreed that it was a good idea — it didn’t hurt to get some face time with the new boss now that Amy had taken charge of the operations department. “That sounds good,” he replied, “I’ll meet you for Starbucks around the corner from the office at seven tomorrow.” It was currently 9 p.m. as John looked out at the Charlotte, North Carolina, skyline, mostly unobstructed aside from a few late Amazon drone shipments.
Disconnecting the call, John tapped a quick reservation for an Uber Suite. Within half an hour, he had packed his things, said goodbye to his family, and boarded the latest in regional transportation. John couldn’t call it luxurious, but it was more than enough to accommodate his needs: a bed, bathroom, snack pantry, and (of course) Wi-Fi, all in an interior that could be better described as a room than a car. Knowing he had a long day ahead, John went straight to sleep and woke up just before 5:30 the next morning.
Looking out the window, he saw the sign for East Brunswick, New Jersey, as the Uber chimed in with his ETA: 45 minutes. Great, he thought, that’s time enough to exercise and freshen up before I arrive for coffee. Compared to the hassle travel used to be, maybe this was luxurious after all?
Forecasts on autonomous vehicles tend to focus on the way they’ll affect our daily lives and travel habits — like how we get to work or the grocery store. But once you remove the driver from the vehicle, longer-distance travel becomes a lot easier as well.
As customers — and regulators, for that matter — learn to trust the capabilities of autonomous vehicles (AVs), manufacturers will have more freedom to design for passenger comfort rather than for driver utility, reducing the barriers to making those long trips by car. As a result, AVs will have the potential to become another “living space,” more akin to a room in your house than simply a method of transportation.
Today’s vehicles are designed with safety in mind first, followed by utility, and finally, entertainment. But all three of these concerns are affected by the rise of autonomy, and the order in which we consider them is likely to shift. As I discussed in my previous post, autonomous vehicles are likely to become less audiocentric than the cars of today, meaning more emphasis on visual experiences, such as with the NIO Vision concept car. Expect lots of screen space in future AVs — at least until decent augmented-reality wearables are introduced.
More surprisingly, autonomous vehicle design will require less emphasis on safety — that is, safety as it relates to the compartmentalized nature of a passenger in a seat. Yes, manufacturers will need to demonstrate that these cars are safer without a human behind the wheel, not to mention secure from hackers and other malicious actors. But once that’s accomplished, shouldn’t travelers riding a long stretch of highway in an AV-only managed lane be free to “move about the cabin”?
The focus of vehicle design must no longer be on the utility of the driver first and passengers second. Designers will be free to craft new vehicle concepts that allow for such features as free-moving seats, pull-out tables or desks, and appliances. Whereas today cars are designed to give the driver primary access to all functions of the car, from the radio dial to air conditioning, autonomous vehicles will need to provide easy access to all passengers.
So many autonomous vehicle concepts today look just like any other car and limit passenger activity in the same way. But once autonomous vehicles can reliably make it to their destination without any input, passengers will be able to do anything in cars that they do on trains and airplanes. That means sleeping in a real bed (and not a car seat), eating lunch (on a table instead of your lap), or even freshening up with limited restroom facilities. Without driver fatigue, there is no longer an urgent need to stop for the night. Without cramped compartments, passengers will not feel an urge to get out and stretch.
As the driving experience changes, there will be a corresponding impact on industries that are dependent on current travel habits. In particular, hospitality businesses that focus on passers-by — such as highway rest stops and motels — are at significant risk of obsolescence.
According to Sven Schuwirth, vice president of brand strategy and digital business at Audi, people will be more likely to “sleep and work in their cars en route instead of checking into city-centre hotels.” Travelers will be in a position where many of their needs can be taken care of, making for a reasonably comfortable rest for longer trips. And this doesn’t even take into account the impact as it relates to automated logistics: How much business do rest stops, diners, and motels make on America’s 3.5 million truck drivers alone? These businesses will likely not be eliminated wholesale, but you could reasonably expect to see far fewer of them in the future — putting additional strain on rural towns.
Similarly, regional air and train travel could become less attractive in this landscape, depending on both the cost and and anticipated lifespan of automated vehicles. If ride-sharing companies like Uber can acquire AVs that are durable enough for regular regional travel, with pricing at least in the same ballpark as air and rail alternatives, then ride sharing may become the preferred transportation option. Research from the Boston Consulting Group offers up a rather bleak outlook for passenger rail in particular in the coming years:
We expect AVs to constitute a tangible threat to passenger rail within the next one or two decades regardless of the rate of adoption. Trains will remain the least expensive mode of transportation during peak times in urban areas. But during off-peak hours and in rural environments, they will lose riders to AVs. Rail companies may even end up in a downward spiral: with reduced overall ridership, rail companies’ overall unit costs for all remaining passengers will escalate because of the inherently high proportion of fixed costs in operating a train network.
These kinds of shifts may be a long way off, but now is the time to start thinking about them. The National League of Cities, for example, created a policy preparation guide for municipal leaders that “provides an overview of AV technology and answers frequently asked questions for city leaders around AV manufacturers, public policy considerations, municipal coordination, and infrastructure investment.” But even a resource like this relegates the ancillary effects of autonomy to a single sentence:
“Considering implications and impacts of automation on the local workforce might also be prudent.”
As a result, the burden may be on affected constituencies, such as restaurant and hospitality associations, to start the conversation on how to manage the shift to an autonomous future.
This encapsulates the conversation about autonomous vehicles more broadly — there are few isolated implications, and few individuals or organizations will be unaffected. Seemingly minor changes in the interior design of these vehicles will impact passenger behavior, and those new behaviors will affect the bottom line of businesses around the world. The way we treat our vehicles as a “third space” has the potential to upend industries that employ millions of people, which means communities need to prepare for these shifts ahead of time, rather than being caught off guard when they happen.
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