Assessing the real future impact of autonomous vehicles

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Bold predictions and skeptical challenges abound regarding the speed with which autonomous vehicles could emerge. The evangelists believe we could see a rapid evolution from “level 1” function-specific automation of tasks – such as stability control – through to “level 4” fully self-driving vehicles. Indeed, in early 2017 Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, claimed that full autonomy could be less than six months away.

Whilst development to date has been relatively slow, as with most current fields of technology, we are likely to see a rapid, if not exponential, acceleration of the self-driving sector. Hence, for the vehicle recovery and repair sector, now is the time to start thinking about the potential evolution of autonomous cars and the resulting implications and opportunities.

Dramatic claims are being made about the potential for autonomous vehicles to cut accident rates, drastically reduce the need for vehicle repairs, improve fuel management, increase traffic flows, and lower the number of taxis required in a city. This could transform the automotive sector, enhance the productivity of human drivers, make car journeys fun again, render cities more livable, and reinvent auto insurance. Here, we take a look at where some of these claims stand, and bring a futurist’s professional perspective to assess the cultural and consumer shifts that could arise from a move toward self-driving cars.

Accident rates: An op-ed written by Barack Obama in 2016 cited the fact that 94% of car accident deaths are caused by human error. Making driving safer is a key assumption when it comes to promoting the adoption of autonomous vehicles. But the actual record of autonomous vehicle deaths and injuries so far suggests there is work still to be done, nor does the available data provide a very complete picture. Far too many road conditions are as yet untested, and the high-profile fatality involving a Tesla on autopilot has generated some negative sentiment. The evidence base will of course improve as the quantity of trips and miles driven rises, and the number of manufacturers of semi- or fully-autonomous vehicles increases. The cars will also get safer with continuous improvement in the underlying autonomous management systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

One of the main ways that accidents and casualties will be addressed in self-driving cars is via the AI systems on board. These systems are complex machine-learning software applications that draw data from a range of vehicle sensors, learning from experience and an ever-increasing awareness of their surroundings – which are used to update the initial knowledge base they were trained with. Not only will the system tap into its own elaborate internal sensor network for information, it will also interact with and learn from other vehicles using V2V (vehicle to vehicle) as well as V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) and V2X (vehicle to everything) communications. The automated car will be a communications hub for a number of in- and on-vehicle devices (e.g. cameras) and objects (e.g. seats), of which the human occupant is just one. The converging influx of information is assumed to provide a safety net, although this is still an unproven hypothesis.

This represents an interesting challenge for those involved in vehicle maintenance. Reductions in accident rates would lead to lower demand for recovery and repair services. The upside is that there are an increasing number of upgrade kits becoming available to add varying degrees of autonomy to a conventional vehicle. Fitting these add-ons could become a major revenue stream for repair garages.

Fuel management: Autonomous vehicles would, by definition, use fossil fuels more efficiently and reliably. They would be programmed for efficiency in a way that would completely unburden the driver from making such decisions. The intention is that the car would always take the most effective routes and waste almost no resources whatsoever. They would also be very well-maintained by virtue of the vehicle’s own smart internal systems, so any issues that would cause excessive fuel use could be identified and addressed immediately.

There is an even more promising trend in self-driving vehicles, which is that they are being built with electric or hybrid engines under the hood. Chrysler’s new minivan is one example of this EV design. Self-driving cars aren’t just changing the way we drive, but offer a huge opportunity to fundamentally transform how mobility is powered.

Traffic flows: The majority of the earth’s people now live in cities, and that is good news for the autonomous car industry. Cities are “on the grid”, they have an increasingly connected and intelligent traffic management set-up – which is what self-driving cars need: data, connectivity and infrastructure only happen in big, urban areas. Cities also have the greatest demand for moving people around efficiently. The country highways and back roads aren’t equipped for self-driving cars, so they are likely to be an urban phenomenon for the time being.

The other source of demand for these vehicles will come from developing urban areas in the emergent global economies like China and India. Urban growth in these areas are prime for growing “smart” – that is, taking advantage of all the technology at their disposal including smartphones and IT for gathering big data about commuter patterns, for example. Building out developing areas with a self-driving mindset would prevent the construction of wasteful infrastructure – like parking lots and multi-lane highways – and allow emergent cities to build smart.

Taxis: According to CB Insights there are 33 companies working on autonomous vehicles, and about half of those are already permitted to use roads in California. Testing these new waters, Uber rolled out and then withdrew a self-driving fleet in California, due to a chorus of controversy and issues. Even more futuristic visions include a self-steering cruise ship, self-flying planes and self-flying cars. Individual car ownership might be on its way out and pretty soon all passenger cars become, essentially, taxis. This in turn leads to the possibility of self-owning assets.

Along these lines, regulation is a key uncertainty, but a necessity. Previously the driver’s license formed the social compact to enforce norms for those behind the wheel. Now, the responsibility for applying such ethics lies with technology. Do we trust AI in the same way we trust perfect strangers not to run into us and to drive us where we need to go? Maybe we can give them as much, or more trust than a human stranger. Other than the fact that – over time – driving jobs would become rare or extinct, in the near term, input is needed from policy makers, consumers and industry insiders alike, so that good judgement is exercised to identify and address emerging challenges.

It’s all about the data

Ultimately, the self-driving vehicle is not about cars or even mobility, but about information. The car is transforming from an impersonal analog machine to a smart and responsive interactive personalized gadget on wheels – more like a smartphone in the way we think about its utility and how we might pay for it. While there has always been a lot of personal identity wrapped up in automobiles, there was also a clear hierarchy between man and machine; the car was nothing without a driver. This is now changing.

If the current prevailing vision of the future of self-driving cars comes about, we can expect a few key changes. First, an automobile’s own awareness and knowledge—about the driver, the places it drives, and other vehicles—will become a valuable new commercial resource in and of itself. Will getting into a car be like signing into Facebook?

Second, the car industry will no longer be owner-oriented, but sharing-oriented and based on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. A lot of CO2 emissions, and all kinds of consumer waste, will be prevented. Could automobiles also enter a new phase of no ownership, but instead be leased or pay-per-use forms of mobility?

Third, mobility will live up to its name (mobility, not gridlock) and cities will manage a new source of vulnerability – complete trust in data and technology – in exchange for no traffic. Cities should become more efficient and well-managed, and presumably safer, and offer a higher overall quality-of-life. They will also be more automated and closely surveilled. The discussion about the future development path, take-up and social impact of self-driving cars will continue for some time to come and we are at a very early point in the sector’s evolution. The journey will continue with many possible routes to the future.

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, keynote speaker and CEO of Fast Future Publishing; Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, faculty member on the Futures program at the University of Houston and foresight director at Fast Future.

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