Autonomous vehicles are rapidly becoming a reality. Every major automobile manufacturer is working on them. The potential of autonomous vehicles is also attracting new participants, including Tesla Motors and Alphabet Inc., née Google. Interestingly, a mere eight days after Alan Mulally stepped down as the CEO of Ford Motor Company, he joined the board of Google. It’s even rumored that Apple is trying to find a suitable business partner for the same.
Fully Autonomous or Partially Autonomous?
The human desire to actively participate (and be in control) of driving will affect adoption rate. Even in the face of numerous potential benefits, many would find it difficult to give away their sense of control and freedom in driving. Technology will continue to be incrementally added to vehicles, easing us into the notion of autonomous vehicles. Many automation technologies, collectively referred to as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), have been added to cars in recent years. Long term, regulatory and consumer demand will dictate requirements for autonomous vehicles, perhaps allowing a driver to regain control for certain situations, regardless of mature technologies.
If we get to a point where we accept fully autonomous vehicles, how will that reshape the interior design and interaction with automobiles? Automobiles could be optimized for commuter functions much like a mobile workplace, so you can get things done while you are on your way to the office. Or perhaps the family van can become a sort of mobile living room optimized for leisure. If we do have autonomous vehicles, would we accept the idea of cars on the road with no people inside whatsoever? Running late to a meeting and trying to find parking would no longer be a problem. Simply have the car drop you off and it will go find a place to park. Could autonomous valet parking be in the near future? Parking lots could be designed to be more compact if no passengers have to exit their vehicle. Cars are already parallel parking themselves, why wait for the car if it’s going to park itself anyway?
How will autonomous vehicles impact the job market? Autonomous vehicles would potentially eliminate valet jobs. However, there could be a resurgence of gas station attendant jobs to service autonomous vehicles. Autonomous electric cars could dock themselves for charging, or charge at stoplights if wireless charging becomes standardized. Truck driving and the face of public transportation could change dramatically, and drunk driving would be a thing of the past.
If fully autonomous vehicles could be summoned via smartphone, could we change from ownership to timesharing? Cars, on average, sit parked 96% of the time, doing nothing. Meanwhile, companies like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar are conditioning us to the fact that car ownership isn’t an absolute must. Parking lots could become a thing of the past.
Would you pay a monthly subscription that‘s significantly less than a car payment if you could request a car on demand and have it reliably show up within five minutes? What if you knew you’d never again pay (or wait) for new tires or an oil change?
Keeping cars constantly on the move would mean reaching major maintenance milestones faster than with traditionally owned vehicles. A higher turnover rate might mean that vehicles are refreshed more often and thus would be more likely to incorporate the latest in safety design and technological innovations. How will renting or subscription models affect the concept of car dealerships and maintenance facilities that have been historically consumer facing?
Many aspects of modern life would be directly impacted by mass adoption of autonomous vehicles. But there are also are wide range of secondary impacts as well:
● Will we still need a driver’s license?
● How will this affect the insurance industry?
● Who is liable if the car is involved in an accident?
● What will the impact be without revenues incurred from traffic citations?
● Would you trust an autonomous vehicle to transport your children alone?
● Will hacking be an issue, and if so, in what ways? Free rides? Kidnapping?
There are probably still many questions beyond these. With autonomous vehicles, tangential aspects of life will change. Most technologists and futurists will probably see many of these changes as positive. But will society at large see them as such? Or will they see autonomous vehicles as surrendering too much control to technology? There you go, two more questions.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.