Automotive

A Driverless Future: What are the Ramifications?

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The classic American dream of owning a house and a car may be changing in the near future. While home ownership will likely remain intact, vehicle ownership will almost certainly change considerably. Many predict that in the near future, people will not own their own vehicles. Instead, transportation will be arranged as a service from companies operating fleets of self-driving vehicles.

Many predict that this major change is just around the corner. Proponents argue that there too are many safety, economic, and technical advantages related to “transportation-as-a-service” for it to take a long time to be implemented. Many go as far as to say that owning your own vehicle will be seen as a novelty for collectors and other automotive enthusiasts sooner rather than later.

Recent events bolster this argument. Uber announced a deal with Volvo for 24,000 self-driving vehicles. Tesla is joining the fray with an electric tractor-trailer vehicle that has amazing technical specifications in terms of range, performance, and self-driving capabilities. Tesla is also producing the fastest production car ever manufactured with a zero to sixty time that is shorter than the time it takes to read “zero to sixty,” all in a self-driving package. From all indications, the future is rapidly coming to pass.

As with all major revolutions, the switch from individual ownership to transportation-as-a-service will have a far-reaching societal impact. These changes will be prominent in terms of economic shifts, industrial shifts, energy industry changes, vehicle designs, city landscape modifications, cultural changes, and changes in driver safety.

Shifts in Employment

Concerning economic changes involving consumers, it is anticipated that consumers will stand to save a lot of money considering that the cost of ownership and maintenance of personal vehicles is significant. That translates to income that can be used or other purposes.

The downside is that employment opportunities may shift, making it hard for some consumers to maintain their current job or cause the need to alter their vocation. Technologies often change faster than the workforce. For example, the demand for truck and taxi cab drivers will be drastically reduced, much as many vocations in the past have become obsolete due to technical innovations (e.g., switchboard operators).

Give the size of the automotive industry, the change from individual ownership to fleet operations will change the landscape of industry and, to some degree, wealth distribution. Software and technology companies will grow even larger as part of the world’s economy. Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Uber are already in a good position for the change and it’s likely they will grow even more in terms of the market share. Many are concerned that, without government intervention, there will be a major transfer of wealth from a larger population to a very small number of individuals involved in the software, technologies and general infrastructure that support this industry shift.

A Disrupted Energy Industry

Changes will also affect the energy industry as the demand for traditional fossil fuels and petroleum products will be reduced as electric cars replace internal combustion engines. Vehicle “refueling” will mostly involve operations involving batteries rather than fuel transfers. Batteries will be charged and distributed by highly optimized centers rather than gas stations. These centers are likely to be owned by big companies associated with the vehicle manufacturers or the result of large corporate agreements. There may be some room for entrepreneurial opportunities in the battery maintenance industry but it is expected to become consolidated and automated quickly. Other once private vehicle-dominated businesses such as the auto insurance industry and title loans will go away as will most traditional car companies and their supply chain network businesses.

Changes to Vehicle Designs

The very design of vehicles will change significantly too. Vehicle structural changes will impact design considerations such as the ability to withstand collisions. The shape and sizes of future vehicles will change a great deal and crash test considerations will differ from that of the past. There are also many anticipated innovations in materials. For example, brakes and tires may be very different and it will require them to be re-optimized with different design assumptions, particularly around variability of loads and significantly more controlled environments. Some design considerations will become less complex. Driverless vehicles, without the need for driver controls, will require significantly fewer parts (e.g., 1/10th to 1/100th fewer parts) and will be faster and easier to produce. Designs with almost no moving parts are possible.

Your City Will Change

The very landscape of one’s hometown may change. Parking garages, parking lots, and parking spaces as we know them will untimely be repurposed for other functions such as mini loading docks. The very aesthetics of commercial properties and homes will change as parking spaces and driveways are replaced. One can expect a cottage industry to spring up for the landscaping of former parking lots and the conversion of home garages into more living space. Places that were once private vehicle-oriented such as local mechanics, auto parts stores, car dealers, car washes, and gas stations will fade into businesses of other types.

Some things won’t be particularly missed. The huge need for driver’s licenses will fade, as will the dreaded DMV in most states. Businesses providing a government-level ID may emerge as driver’s licenses become less common.

In Fact, Everything Will Change

Traffic police will become far less common and police transport will likely change to some other form. Unmanned police cars may become standard and police officers may join consumers in using commercial fleet transportation.

Traffic signs and stop lights will fade away as well. It is possible that vehicles will not have visible headlights as infrared and radar take the place of lights in the human-visible spectrum. Traffic jams may be a thing of the past as roads will be much less crowded as self-driving cars need less space and since traffic flow will be better regulated with algorithmic timing including traffic flow optimization.

Huge shipping costs and costly road construction may be significantly reduced, as roads will wear out less frequently as lighter vehicles are the norm. Last but not least, those people that are always showing up late will have fewer excuses since driving is out of their hands.

Other things such as increased socialization and public safety will be welcomed changes. The relationship between cyclists, pedestrians, and transport vehicles will likely change due to cultural and behavioral changes as people travel in groups, walk or ride bicycles more.

Public safety will improve dramatically as DUI/OUI offenses will decline.

Perhaps the biggest plus is that there will be fewer people killed or injured on our roads and highways. While other safety issues may spring up, (e.g., software hacking) largely the elimination of the human element in driving is expected to drastically reduce accidents.

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