The way we drive cars has not changed much over the past century. Finally, new technologies are about to completely redefine how we travel. Autonomous vehicles will be a disruptive game-changer.
This is a part of a new series about global megatrends. Please read the introductory post.
Once upon a time, a driver’s license was required to drive a car. After many weeks of learning how to switch gears, not to stall the engine, and not to run pedestrians over, freshly-baked drivers were allowed to drive a car on public roads. They had learned to obey a long list of traffic rules and regulations, yet they frequently ran into costly speed traps. Drinking and driving were strictly forbidden. Drivers were not allowed to take phone calls using handsets; they were busy keeping their cars on track during the entire drive. Talking to a passenger was the best way to kill time during long drives.
That is about to change forever.
The idea of a self-driving car is as old as the science fiction genre. KITT, the car in “Knight Rider,” is one of the most prominent examples of the idea of an autonomous, self-driving, and even “thinking” car. While KITT is just a fantasy, the technology required to create such a car has matured significantly in recent decades. New microprocessors, sensors, and network technologies have achieved a sophistication level that, at least in theory, makes a vehicle with a permanent autopilot possible. Admittedly, certain issues still require improvements, such as spatial awareness algorithms, car-platform systems integration, and non-technical questions along safety lines and insurance regulations.
Despite these and other challenges, the rise of autonomous cars appears inevitable because there is a huge demand for such technology:
- The road capacity in many developed and emerging countries is limited. This precious resource needs to be utilized more efficiently. Human drivers are very ineffective in that matter.
- Drivers are increasingly distracted. Mobile phones, multimedia systems, driver assistance systems, etc… will all affect driving safety in a negative way.
- Many commuters spend two or more hours in their cars each day. That is an unbelievable waste of their time. By its very nature, mass transportation can only deliver a very limited solution to this. A self-driving car, on the other hand, provides the best of both worlds.
- People are not good at saving energy through an efficient driving style. Cars can become significantly environmentally friendlier if sophisticated algorithms, instead of the driver’s foot, control speed, acceleration, and breaking.
- Many societies are becoming increasingly older. Many elderly are wealthy enough to afford a car. Yet, being old also means having poor sight and slower reflexes. An autonomous car sounds like a wonderful solution to that problem.
- As soon as the first autonomous prototypes become available, insurers will put significant pressure on drivers to adopt these vehicles. Initial emphasis will be placed on young drivers who are seen as disproportionately risky traffic participants.
There are still some obstacles to be overcome on the road to the next generation of mass mobility provided by autonomous vehicles. Arguably the biggest problem remains the availability of cheap energy. Without it, individual mobility, in general, will continue to suffer from a lack of acceptance. It is, however, likely that new energy sources will soon replace the far more expensive and/or environmentally unfriendly power plants. A global boom of autonomous cars will follow.
- Commuting will become more acceptable even though new and improved remote working technologies will already be in use. Drivers will profit from more productive time available during the driving time. Cars will become a “second office” for many.
- The regular driver’s license will become dispensable (an “off-road driving license” will be all the rage).
- Individual mobility will become prevalent for everyone, especially the elderly, disabled persons, and even children.
- Traffic will generally become much safer. However, on the rare occasions when something goes wrong, it will go very wrong.
- A general speed limit, required for safety reasons, will be established in all countries, including Germany where no formal speed limit is imposed.
- People will generally become less interested in cars. Cars will be more like furniture.
- Cars will become see-all-hear-all devices. They will record everything around them optically (via cameras) and acoustically, as well as everything happening inside them. Privacy concerns will be a general problem with autonomous cars.
- The taxi business as we know it will disappear. Taxis will be replaced by car-sharing services.
- A very different interior car design will be required. Comfort will be the only important feature; sports cars will die out.
- Comfort-oriented car technologies that are not yet attractive will spread widely, such as tilt technology (elegantly drive around curves, today regarded as dangerous because the driver doesn’t feel the centrifugal force and tends to go to faster around curves); active “ideal” no-bump suspension systems (today’s drivers like to “feel the road” because it helps them drive more safely); “all-private” glass on all sides of the car; etc.
- Speeding traps will die out – cities will find other, perhaps as unpleasant, ways to tax citizens.
- Autonomous cars will present a great opportunity for ad-supported businesses since people have time to watch commercials in their cars (e.g. augmented car glass with context-sensitive ads).
- Certain forms of mass transit systems will begin to decline.
- The car industry will thoroughly change. Automakers will have to move strongly toward software design, otherwise, they will fall behind.
- Parking lots will change. Since the cars will be able to drive without any passengers at all, people will prefer to save money and let their cars park cheaply in remote places. A new kind of parking lot will be required.
- Buying online and sending the car to fetch the purchased products will make “real-time” delivery concepts possible. A new system of warehouses and grocery shops will emerge.
- The mocked “Internet fridge” will finally become a reality. For that to work, home robots will emerge as a mechanical interface between cars and homes.
- There will be “an app for that.” Cars will be tightly integrated in personal electronic networks, including mobile devices, home automation, logistics, and traffic control systems.
- Data security will become a real problem. Strong encryption will be required to fight off hackers, spies, and viruses. It will be a great opportunity for data security companies.
- New insurance and liability concepts will be required. Who will be ultimately responsible when an accident occurs? That will likely be the carmaker.
All car makers around the world are presently working to create autonomous cars. It is only a question of time when the first self-driving vehicle goes on sale. It may take ten to twenty years until all technical and legal problems are solved. Until then, a rising number of driver assistance and active safety systems will be available, slowly building to a single integrated unit.
The wonderful world of self-driving cars will be spoiled by a few problems. For example, while autonomous car driving systems will effectively increase the capacity of roads and highways, there will be a big problem with a large number of empty cars on the road that is programmed to move from one point to another without any passengers. Also, in poorer countries where the roads are chaotic and barely maintained, the autonomous vehicles will not work.
Still, the positive effects of the new technology will outweigh its disadvantages by far. Individual mobility means more freedom, more economic flexibility, more opportunities, and a better quality of life. As soon as the energy problem is solved, the world will become a better, more individually mobile place.