Self-Driving Cars: the Future of the Automotive Industry?

Google self-driving cars

Self-driving cars and iced tea

It’s become a running gag with my friends now: I don’t drink alcohol so when someone asks me if I want something to drink, my answer is always « an iced tea ». So whenever my friends see me in front of a half-empty bottle of iced tea, ranting about self-driving cars and how they are gonna change the world, they say « and here we go, he’s at it again! ». And guess what I just drank…

Once upon a time

Back in the fifties, when people imagined the future of transportation, they thought of flying cars. That’s probably because the invention of the computer had not been revealed to the public yet. But everyone could see the innovation in the sky during World War II. Sixty years later, we have portable computers that can fit into a car, and we have artificial intelligence. Sure it’s not ready (yet) to take over us in the food chain. But it is certainly almost ready to replace us behind the steering wheel.

And when I say almost, I mean it. A lot of people imagine it’s gonna take at least 10 more years to see completely autonomous cars on our roads. But I’m ready to bet it won’t take 5. Not only because the technology is already much more advanced than what most of us imagine. But also because it’s going to progress exponentially faster once more and more people start to realize how important it is.

I read an article the other day about the French government officially allowing self-driving prototypes on the road… sorry VDPTC’s for Partial or Total Driving Delegation Vehicles in French – an acronym to make Elon Musk proud. One of the reasons for pushing this new legislation is that they think self-driving cars are going to be the future of the automotive industry.

Are you serious? That’s it? The automotive industry? OK, let’s talk about our lives for a while.

Self-driving commuting

I live a mere 35 kilometers away from my former office in downtown Brussels. And to get in the office, I had to choose between:

  1. spending at least 1h30 stuck in traffic, in my car, doing nothing but drive
  2. spending the same 1h30 in trains and subways, being able to actually do something productive on the way, but forced to walk, wait and switch between trains
  3. getting a motorbike driving licence and the bike that goes with it, hoping to get there in half the time… if I get there alive

Well, I ended up choosing the third solution, at least when the weather is with me. But the point is there could soon be a solution that:

  1. gets me in the office faster, since self-driving cars can fluidify traffic (we’ll come back later to how they can do that)
  2. gets me there safely
  3. lets me do productive stuff on my way
  4. takes me from door to door

In a world like that, do you think we would still need commuter trains? Or to spend 10 to 12 hours away from our home for work? Do you think we would need as many paramedics and emergency rooms? What about subways and other public transportation networks that our governments are busy pouring hundreds of millions of tax dollars into?

A new kind of freedom

Now let me ask you this: why do you own your car, instead of renting or borrowing one every time you need one? Because of the flexibility, because wherever you are, whenever you want, you want to take your keys and go wherever you want, as fast as physically possible. And for that flexibility, for that freedom, you are ready to take on debt over several years, to buy a car that sits in your garage at least two thirds of the time. It is there rotting on its wheels, losing value like crazy, costing you maintenance, and gas, and repairs so that you can enjoy this flexibility.

Now imagine a world in which wherever you are, you can summon a car and by the time it would take you to find your keys between the couch cushions, it is there, ready to take you and drop you straight at your destination.

Grocery shopping

Let’s say your destination is the grocery store. Normally you would park your own car in the parking lot, so that you can find it back when you come out of the store. So that you can use it to bring all your shopping back to your place. But remember, you can summon a car to take you back home whenever you want.

You might think this already exists: it’s called a taxi, but it costs a hell of a lot. And of course it does. Because those people doing nothing else than driving you around need to be paid. And they are in limited supply. And and their cars need to be maintained. Electric cars and Ubers have slightly decreased that cost, but it’s still very much impractical.

But in a world where most cars are electric and self-driving (assuming self-driving cars are way easier done with electric cars), forget about parking lots and all the wasted space. Forget about the need to own your car. The maintenance cost goes way down since there are very few moving parts in an electric car. Same for the gas cost that is replaced by electricity that costs way less.

Limitless partying

I already said it, my drink of choice is iced tea, and there’s a reason to that: I don’t drink alcohol. But for those who do, name one thing that limits your partying and your drinking habits, if not the necessity to drive back home at some point. What is gonna happen with your limits when you can be driven around safely, and when you don’t even need to remember where your home is, because your car remembers it for you? What is going to happen to road cops? And what about the business of those bars and clubs that get you drunk?

Urban planning revolution

Let’s get back from our parties, back into our cities for a while. Think of all the space wasted by cars just driving around to find a parking spot. What about the size of the road it takes to accommodate all of these, plus those aforementioned parking spots. Imagine how the very business of underground parking garages will evolve.

Delivering (and selling) stuff differently

But wait, while you are taking your lunch break, why not make a little shopping? Today, you still have a choice between online shopping, that will get your stuff to your home in a couple of days at best. Because you know, there are people driving these packages around. Or brick-and-mortar shopping that will narrow your choice to what’s in stock but at least you can leave the store with what you need right away. Now what will happen when, whether you order online or go to a physical store, you can get your stuff delivered in the time it takes for a self-driving van to go from a warehouse to your house?

This is going to change everything

So let’s sum it up:

  • public transportation networks, including trains, subways and buses
  • time management and overall productivity
  • road safety and healthcare
  • the entire notion of even owning a car, and the business model for fleet management companies, taxis and so on
  • the very architecture or our shopping zones
  • alcohol consumption
  • nightlife industry
  • cops on the road
  • urban planning and architecture
  • parking businesses
  • mechanical repair industry
  • of course oil industry
  • package delivery
  • retail, including online and brick-and-mortar

And that’s just the beginning. As a matter of fact, this little exercise shows that our entire world is built around human-driven cars and their limitations. Even cars themselves are designed a certain way because of that. Once they drive themselves, no need for a steering wheel or pedals. So you can put more people in each car, and you can completely change how they look and even how they move.

Only the future of the automotive industry?

My point is, self-driving cars are not just the future of the automotive industry. Not even just for the transportation model of our societies. They have the potential to be the basis of a completely different lifestyle. In fact, to me, self-driving cars are as close as we can get to actual teletransportation.

They will kill some business models that have existed for centuries. And replace them with some that we can’t even imagine yet. Uber is doing it right under our nose. They are taking billions and billions in valuation because investors know that once the technology is ready, they will ditch all their drivers and sit on a goldmine of automated fleet management. And some still call that a bubble. If anything, Uber is undervalued to me.

And the most incredible part of all this, is that all of those changes will be upon us in a matter of a few years, and again I bet on less than 5. So this is going to rock our world like nothing else before. And there will be strikes, and protests, and questions about jobs. Hell I can already hear the complaints.

Objections

But what happens when a self-driving car has an accident? Who is responsible?

Who cares if it’s so rare? If it is almost never lethal anymore (and don’t mention that Tesla death, who was driving the truck that crossed a highway?) ? Who cares if it’s not even your own car? Who cares if those cars can pay for themselves in profitability in a matter of weeks or months? You have to think of these questions in a new context, not in the current one.

And how will a self-driving car choose between its passengers and a group of kids crossing the road in front of it?

Simple: way better than if you were driving the car yourself! Because the truth is, when it comes to that kind of last-minute dilemma, you don’t think, you act with your reflexes, with your instincts. An artificial intelligence won’t even come to that, because it will have a way better view of the surrounding environment. And it will see those kids before you can even hear their voices. And it will evaluate not two, but tens of different ways to avoid collision before you even realize what’s happening. Plus, of course we will redesign our entire road system to account for this new transportation model, in the same way as we keep pedestrians away from rail tracks.

What about all those jobs we will lose?

Well, that’s not just a debate around self-driving cars, mind you. If anything, it will just crystalize the necessity to rethink the very notion of jobs, employment and salaries. But that’s gonna be another story. Because guess what: this « notion of work » is also one of my favorite futurology topics. So we’ll come back to that in due time.

Can you see it now?

This was a somewhat messy essay. But I hope you can see now why self-driving cars are way more important that most politicians have the courage to admit. It will present much bigger challenges than what most of us are ready to anticipate. And it will create many more new opportunities too. And because of all that, progress is going to be much faster than we expect.

So if you’ll allow me, buckle your seat belt, and brace yourselves for a rocky ride!

PS: If you want to read a complementary opinion on the exciting and challenging changes self-driving cars bring, I strongly advise you this one.

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