I originally wrote and published a version of this article about autonomous vehicles in September 2016. Since then, quite a bit has happened, further cementing my view that these changes are coming and that the implications will be even more substantial. I decided it was time to update this article with some additional ideas and a few changes.
As I write this, Uber just announced that it just ordered 24,000 self-driving Volvos. Tesla just released an electric, long-haul tractor trailer with extraordinary technical specs (range, performance) and self-driving capabilities (UPS just preordered 125!). And, Tesla just announced what will probably be the quickest production car ever made — perhaps the fastest. It will go zero to sixty in about the time it takes you to read zero to sixty. And, of course, it will be able to drive itself. The future is quickly becoming now. Google just ordered thousands of Chryslers for its self-driving fleet (that are already on the roads in AZ).
In September of 2016, Uber had just rolled out its first self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla and Mercedes were rolling out limited self-driving capabilities and cities around the world were negotiating with companies who want to bring self-driving cars and trucks to their cities. Since then, all of the major car companies have announced significant steps towards mostly or entirely electric vehicles, more investments have been made in autonomous vehicles, driverless trucks now seem to be leading rather than following in terms of the first large scale implementations and there’ve been a few more incidents (i.e. accidents).
I believe that the timeframe for significant adoption of this technology has shrunk in the past year as technology has gotten better faster and as the trucking industry has increased its level of interest and investment.
I believe that my daughter, who is now just over 1 years old, will never have to learn to drive or own a car.
The impact of driverless vehicles will be profound and impact almost every part of our lives.
Below are my updated thoughts about what a driverless future will be like. Some of these updates are from feedback to my original article (thanks to those who contributed!!!), some are based on technology advances in the past year and others are just my own speculations.
What could happen when cars and trucks drive themselves?
1. People won’t own their own cars. Transport will be delivered as a service from companies who own fleets of self-driving vehicles. There are so many technical, economic, safety advantages to the transportation-as-a-service that this change may come much faster than most people expect. Owning a vehicle as an individual will become a novelty for collectors and maybe competitive racers.
2. Software/technology companies will own more of the world’s economy as companies like Uber, Google and Amazon turn transportation into a pay-as-you-go service. Software will indeed eat this world. Over time, they’ll own so much data about people, patterns, routes and obstacles that new entrants will have huge barriers to enter the market
3. Without government intervention (or some sort of organized movement), there will be a tremendous transfer of wealth to a very small number of people who own the software, battery/power manufacturing, vehicle servicing and charging/power generation/maintenance infrastructure. There will be massive consolidation of companies serving these markets as scale and efficiency will become even more valuable. Cars (perhaps they’ll be renamed with some sort-of-clever acronym) will become like the routers that run the Internet — most consumers won’t know or care who made them or who owns them.
4. Vehicle designs will change radically — vehicles won’t need to withstand crashes in the same way, all vehicles will be electric (self-driving + software + service providers = all electric). They may look different, come in very different shapes and sizes, maybe attach to each other in some situations. There will likely be many significant innovations in materials used for vehicle construction — for example, tires and brakes will be re-optimized with very different assumptions, especially around variability of loads and much more controlled environments. The bodies will likely be primarily made of composites (like carbon fiber and fiberglass) and 3D printed. Electric vehicles with no driver controls will require 1/10th or fewer the number of parts (perhaps even 1/100th) and thus will be quicker to produce and require much less labor. There may even be designs with almost no moving parts (other than wheels and motors, obviously).
5. Vehicles will mostly swap batteries rather than serve as the host of battery charging. Batteries will be charged in distributed and highly optimized centers — likely owned by the same company as the vehicles or another national vendor. There may be some entrepreneurial opportunity and a marketplace for battery charging and swapping, but this industry will likely be consolidated quickly. The batteries will be exchanged without human intervention — likely in a carwash-like drive thru
6. Vehicles (being electric) will be able to provide portable power for a variety of purposes (which will also be sold as a service) — construction job sites (why use generators), disaster/power failures, events, etc. They may even temporarily or permanently replace power distribution networks (i.e. power lines) for remote locations — imagine a distributed power generation network with autonomous vehicles providing “last mile” services to some locations
7. Driver’s licenses will slowly go away as will the Department of Motor Vehicles in most states. Other forms of ID may emerge as people no longer carry driver’s licenses. This will probably correspond with the inevitable digitization of all personal identification — via prints, retina scans or other biometric scanning
8. There won’t be any parking lots or parking spaces on roads or in buildings. Garages will be repurposed — maybe as mini loading docks for people and deliveries. Aesthetics of homes and commercial buildings will change as parking lots and spaces go away. There will be a multi-year boom in landscaping and basement and garage conversions as these spaces become available
9. Traffic policing will become redundant. Police transport will also likely change quite a bit. Autonomous police vehicles may become more common and police officers may use commercial transportation to move around routinely. This may dramatically change the nature of policing, with newfound resources from the lack of traffic policing and dramatically less time spent moving around
10. There will be no more local mechanics, car dealers, consumer car washes, auto parts stores or gas stations. Towns that have been built around major thoroughfares will change or fade as autonomous vehicles owned by large companies won’t use these local businesses
11. The auto insurance industry as we know it will go away (as will the significant investing power of the major players of this industry). Most car companies will go out of business, as will most of their enormous supplier networks. There will be many fewer net vehicles on the road (maybe 1/10th, perhaps even less) that are also more durable, made of fewer parts and much more commoditized
12. Traffic lights and signs will become obsolete. Vehicles may not even have headlights as infrared and radar take the place of the human light spectrum. The relationship between pedestrians (and bicycles) and cars and trucks will likely change dramatically. Some will come in the form of cultural and behavioral changes as people travel in groups more regularly and walking or cycling becomes practical in places where it isn’t today
13. Multi-modal transportation will become a more integrated and normal part of our ways of moving around. In other words, we’ll often take one type of vehicle to another, especially when traveling longer distances. With coordination and integration, the elimination of parking and more deterministic patterns, it will become ever-more efficient to combine modes of transport – trains, light rails, autonomous vehicles, etc
14. The power grid will change. Power stations via alternative power sources will become more competitive and local. Consumers and small businesses with solar panels, small scale tidal or wave power generators, windmills and other local power generation will be able to sell KiloWattHours to the companies who own the vehicles. This will change “net metering” rules and possibly upset the overall power delivery model. It might even be the beginning of truly distributed power creation and transport. There will likely be a significant boom in innovation in power production and delivery models. Over time, ownership of these services will probably be consolidated across a very small number of companies
15. Traditional petroleum products (and other fossil fuels) will become much less valuable as electric cars replace fuel powered vehicles and as alternative energy sources become more viable with portability of power (transmission and conversion eat tons of power). There are many geopolitical implications to this possible shift. As implications of climate change become ever-clearer and present, these trends will likely accelerate. Petroleum will continue to be valuable for making plastics and other derived materials, but will not be burned for energy at any scale. Many companies, oil-rich countries and investors have already begun accommodating for these changes
16. Entertainment funding will change as the auto industry’s ad spending goes away. Think about how many ads you see or hear about cars, car financing, car insurance, car accessories and car dealers. There are likely to be many other structural and cultural changes that come from the dramatic changes to the transportation industry. We’ll stop saying “shift into high gear” and other driving-related colloquialisms as the references will be lost on future generations
17. The recent corporate tax rate reductions in the “..Act to Provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Titles II and V of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2018” will accelerate investments in automation including self-driving vehicles and other forms of transportation automation. Flush with new cash and incentives to invest capital soon, many businesses will invest in technology and solutions that reduce their labor costs.
18. The car financing industry will go away, as will the newly huge derivative market for packaged sub-prime auto loans which will likely itself cause a version of the 2008–2009 financial crisis as it blows up. Autonomous vehicles won’t likely recreate this market
19. Increases in unemployment, increased student loan, vehicle and other debt defaults could quickly spiral into a full depression. The world that emerges on the other side will likely have even more dramatic income and wealth stratification as entry level jobs related to transportation and the entire supply chain of the existing transportation system go away. The convergence of this with hyper-automation in production and service delivery (AI, robotics, low-cost computing, business consolidation, etc) may permanently change how societies are organized and how people spend their time
20. There will be many new innovations in luggage and bags as people no longer keep stuff in cars and loading and unloading packages from vehicles becomes much more automated. The traditional trunk size and shape will change. Trailers or other similar detachable devices will become much more commonplace to add storage space to vehicles. Many additional on demand services will become available as transportation for goods and services becomes more ubiquitous and cheaper. Imagine being able to design, 3D print and put on an outfit as you travel to a party or the office (if you’re still going to an office)…
21. Consumers will have more money as transportation (a major cost, especially for lower income people and families) gets much cheaper and ubiquitous — though this may be offset by dramatic reductions in employment as technology changes many times faster than people’s ability to adapt to new types of work. Autonomous vehicles will be one of many pressures on employment that also include AI
22. Demand for taxi and truck drivers will go down, eventually to zero. Someone born today might not understand what a truck driver is or even understand why someone would do that job — much like people born in the last 30 years don’t understand how someone could be employed as a switchboard operator
23. The politics will get ugly as lobbyists for the auto and oil industries unsuccessfully try to stop autonomous vehicles. They’ll get even uglier as the federal government deals with assuming huge pension obligations and other legacy costs associated with the auto industry. My guess is that these pension obgligations won’t ultimately be honored and certain communities will be devastated. The same may be true of pollution clean-up efforts around the factories and chemical plants that were once major components of the vehicle supply chain
24. The new players in vehicle design and manufacturing will be a mix of companies like Uber, Google and Amazon and companies you don’t yet know. There will probably be 2 or 3 major players who control >80% of the customer-facing transportation market. There may become API-like access to these networks for smaller players — much like app marketplaces for iPhone and Android. However, the majority of the revenue associated with autonomous vehicles will flow to a few large players as it does today to Apple and Google for smartphones
25. Supply chains will be disrupted as shipping changes. Algorithms will allow trucks to be fuller. Excess (latent) capacity will be priced cheaper. New middlemen and warehousing models will emerge. As shipping gets cheaper, faster and generally easier, retail storefronts will continue to lose footing in the marketplace.
26. The role of malls and other shopping areas will continue to shift — to be replaced by places people go for services, not products. There will be virtually no face to face purchases of physical goods.
27. Amazon and/or a few other large players will put Fedex, UPS and USPS out of business as their transportation network becomes orders of magnitude more cost efficient than existing models — largely from a lack of legacy costs like pensions, higher union labor costs and regulations (especially USPS) that won’t keep up with the pace of technology change. 3D printing will also contribute to this as many day-to-day products are printed at home rather than purchased.. Autonomous vehicles will be a catalyst for systemic changes that accelerate wealth stratification
28. The same autonomous vehicles will often transport people and goods as algorithms optimize all routes. And, off-peak utilization will allow for other very inexpensive delivery options. In other words, packages will be increasingly delivered at night. Add autonomous drone aircraft to this mix and there’ll be very little reason to believe that traditional carriers (Fedex, USPS, UPS, etc) will survive at all.
29. Roads will be much emptier and smaller (over time) as self-driving cars need much less space between them (a major cause of traffic today), people will share vehicles more than today (carpooling), traffic flow will be better regulated and algorithmic timing (i.e. leave at 10 versus 9:30) will optimize infrastructure utilization. Roads will also likely be smoother and turns optimally banked for passenger comfort. High speed underground and above ground tunnels (maybe integrating hyperloop technology or this novel magnetic track solution) will become the high speed network for long haul travel.
30. Short hop domestic air travel may be largely displaced by multi-modal travel in autonomous vehicles. This may be countered by the advent of lower cost, more automated air travel. This too may become part of integrated, multi-modal transportation.
31. Roads will wear out much more slowly with fewer vehicle miles, lighter vehicles (with less safety requirements). New road materials will be developed that drain better, last longer and are more environmentally friendly. These materials might even be power generating (solar or reclamation from vehicle kinetic energy). At the extreme, they may even be replaced by radically different designs — tunnels, magnetic tracks, other hyper-optimized materials
32. Premium vehicle services will have more compartmentalized privacy, more comfort, good business features (quiet, wifi, bluetooth for each passenger, etc), massage services and beds for sleeping. They may also allow for meaningful in-transit real and virtual meetings. This will also likely include aromatherapy, many versions of in-vehicle entertainment systems and even virtual passengers to keep you company.
33. Exhilaration and emotion will almost entirely leave transportation. People won’t brag about how nice, fast, comfortable their cars are. Speed will be measured by times between end points, not acceleration, handling or top speed. Autonomous vehicles aren’t likely to be fun
34. Cities will become much more dense as fewer roads and vehicles will be needed and transport will be cheaper and more available. The “walkable city” will continue to be more desirable as walking and biking become easier and more commonplace. When costs and timeframes of transit change, so will the dynamics of who lives and works where. Autonomous vehicles will change the nature of cities
35. People will know when they leave, when they’ll get where they’re going. There will be few excuses for being late. We will be able to leave later and cram more into a day. We’ll also be able to better track kids, spouses, employees and so forth. We’ll be able to know exactly when someone will arrive and when someone needs to leave to be somewhere at a particular time.
36. There will be no more DUI/OUI offenses. Restaurants and bars will sell more alcohol. People will consume more as they no longer need to consider how to get home and will be able to consume inside vehicles
37. We’ll have less privacy as interior cameras and usage logs will track when and where we go and have gone in autonomous vehicles. Exterior cameras will also probably record surroundings, including people. This may have a positive impact on crime, but will open up many complex privacy issues and likely many lawsuits. Some people may find clever ways to game the system — with physical and digital disguises and spoofing
38. Many lawyers will lose sources of revenue — traffic offenses, crash litigation will reduce dramatically. Litigation will more likely be “big company versus big company” or “individuals against big companies”, not individuals against each other. These will settle more quickly with less variability. Lobbyists will probably succeed in changing the rules of litigation to favor the bigger companies, further reducing the legal revenue related to transportation. Forced arbitration and other similar clauses will become an explicit component of our contractual relationship with transportation providers. Autonomous vehicles will likely compound the pressure of AI more generally on the legal profession
39. Some countries will nationalize parts of their self-driving transportation networks which will result in lower costs, fewer disruptions and less innovation.
40. Cities, towns and police forces will lose revenue from traffic tickets, tolls (likely replaced, if not eliminated) and fuel tax revenues drop precipitously. These will probably be replaced by new taxes (probably on vehicle miles). These may become a major political hot-button issue differentiating parties as there will probably be a range of regressive versus progressive tax models. Most likely, this will be a highly regressive tax in the US, as fuel taxes are today.
41. Some employers and/or government programs will begin partially or entirely subsidizing transportation for employees and/or people who need the help. The tax treatment of this perk will also be very political.
42. Ambulance and other emergency vehicles will likely be used less and change in nature. More people will take regular autonomous vehicles instead of ambulances. Ambulances will transport people faster. Same may be true of military vehicles.
43. There will be significant innovations in first response capabilities as dependencies on people become reduced over time and as distributed staging of capacity becomes more common.
44. Airports will allow vehicles right into the terminals, maybe even onto the tarmac, as increased controls and security become possible. Terminal design may change dramatically as transportation to and from becomes normalized and integrated. The entire nature of air travel may change as integrated, multi-modal transport gets more sophisticated. Hyper-loops, high speed rail, automated aircraft and other forms of rapid travel will gain as traditional hub and spoke air travel on relatively large planes lose ground.
45. Innovative app-like marketplaces will open up for in-transit purchases, ranging from concierge services to food to exercise to merchandise to education to entertainment purchases. VR will likely play a large role in this. With integrated systems, VR (via headsets or screens or holograms) will become standard fare for trips more than a few minutes in duration.
46. Transportation will become more tightly integrated and packaged into many services — dinner includes the ride, hotel includes local transport, etc. This may even extend to apartments, short-term rentals (like AirBnB) and other service providers.
47. Local transport of nearly everything will become ubiquitous and cheap — food, everything in your local stores. Drones will likely be integrated into autonomous vehicle designs to deal with “last few feet” on pickup and delivery. This will accelerate the demise of traditional retail stores and their local economic impact.
48. Biking and walking will become easier, safer and more common as roads get safer and less congested, new pathways (reclaimed from roads/parking lots/roadside parking) come online and with cheap, reliable transport available as a backup.
49. More people will participate in vehicle racing (cars, off road, motorcycles) to replace their emotional connection to driving. Virtual racing experiences may also grow in popularity as fewer people have the real experience of driving.
50. Many, many fewer people will be injured or killed on roads, though we’ll expect zero and be disproportionately upset when accidents do happen. Hacking and non-malicious technical issues will replace traffic as the main cause of delays. Over time, resilience will increase in the systems.
51. Hacking of autonomous vehicles will be a serious issue. New software and communications companies and technologies will emerge to address these issues. We’ll see the first vehicle hacking and its consequences. Highly distributed computing, perhaps using some form of blockchain, will likely become part of the solution as a counterbalance to systemic catastrophes — such as many vehicles being affected simultaneously. There will probably be a debate about whether and how law enforcement can control, observe and restrict transportation.
52. Many roads and bridges will be privatized as a small number of companies control most transport and make deals with municipalities. Over time, government may entirely stop funding roads, bridges and tunnels. There will be a significant legislative push to privatize more and more of the transportation network. Much like Internet traffic, there will likely become tiers of prioritization and some notion of in-network versus out-of-network travel and tolls for interconnection. Regulators will have a tough time keeping up with these changes. Most of this will be transparent to end users, but will probably create enormous barriers to entry for transportation start-ups and ultimately reduce options for consumers.
53. Innovators will come along with many awesome uses for driveways and garages that no longer contain cars.
54. There will be a new network of clean, safe, pay-to-use restrooms and other services (food, drinks, etc) that become part of the value-add of competing service providers
55. Mobility for seniors and people with disabilities will be greatly improved (over time)
56. Parents will have more options to move around their kids on their own. Premium secure end-to-end children’s transport services will likely emerge. This may change many family relationships and increase the accessibility of services to parents and children. It may also further stratify the experiences of families with higher income and those with lower income.
57. Person to person movement of goods will become cheaper and open up new markets — think about borrowing a tool or buying something on Craigslist. Latent capacity will make transporting goods very inexpensive. This may also open up new opportunities for P2P services at a smaller scale — like preparing food or cleaning clothes.
58. People will be able to eat/drink in transit (like on a train or plane), consume more information (reading, podcasts, video, etc). This will open up time for other activities and perhaps increased productivity.
59. Some people may have their own “pods” to get into which will then be picked up by an autonomous vehicle, moved between vehicles automatically for logistic efficiencies. These may come in varieties of luxury and quality — the Louis Vuitton pod may replace the Louis Vuitton trunk as the mark of luxury travel
60. There will be no more getaway vehicles or police vehicle chases.
61. Autonomous vehicles will likely be filled to the brim with advertising of all sorts (much of which you could probably act on in-route), though there will probably be ways to pay more to have an ad free experience. This will include highly personalized en route advertising that is particularly relevant to who you are, where you’re going.
62. These innovations will make it to the developing world where congestion today is often remarkably bad and hugely costly. Pollution levels will come down dramatically. Even more people will move to the cities. Productivity levels will go up. Fortunes will be made as these changes happen. Some countries and cities will be transformed for the better. Some others will likely experience hyper-privatization, consolidation and monopoly-like controls. This may play out much like the roll-out of cell services in these countries — fast, consolidated and inexpensive.
63. Payment options will be greatly expanded, with packaged deals like cell phones, pre-paid models, pay-as-you-go models being offered. Digital currency transacted automatically via phones/devices will probably quickly replace traditional cash or credit card payments.
64. There will likely be some very clever innovations for movement of pets, equipment, luggage and other non-people items. Autonomous vehicles in the medium future (10–20 years) may have radically different designs that support carrying significantly more payload.
65. Some creative marketers will offer to partially or fully subsidize rides in autonomous vehicles where customers deliver value — by taking surveys, by participating in virtual focus groups, by promoting their brand via social media, etc.
66. Sensors of all sorts will be embedded in vehicles that will have secondary uses — like improving weather forecasting, crime detection and prevention, finding fugitives, infrastructure conditions (such as potholes). This data will be monetized, likely by the companies who own the transportation services.
67. Companies like Google and Facebook will add to their databases everything about customer movements and locations. Unlike GPS chips that only tell them where someone is at the moment (and where they’ve been), autonomous vehicles systems will know where you’re going in real-time (and with whom).
68. Autonomous vehicles will create some new jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs. However, these will be off-set many times by extraordinary job losses by nearly everyone in the transportation value chain today. In the autonomous future, a large number of jobs will go away. This includes drivers (which is in many states today the most common job), mechanics, gas station employees, most of the people who make cars and car parts or support those who do (due to huge consolidation of makers and supply chains and manufacturing automation), the marketing supply chain for vehicles, many people who work on and build roads/bridges, employees of vehicle insurance and financing companies (and their partners/suppliers), toll booth operators (most of whom have already been displaced), many employees of restaurants that support travelers, truck stops, retail workers and all the people whose businesses support these different types of companies and workers.
69. There will be some hardcore hold-outs who really like driving and viscerally refuse autonomous vehicles. But, over time, they’ll become a less statistically relevant voting group as younger people, who’ve never driven, will outnumber them. At first, this may be a 50 state regulated system — where driving yourself may actually become illegal in some states in the next 10 years while other states may continue to allow it for a long time. Some states will try, unsuccessfully, to block autonomous vehicles.
70. There will be lots of discussions about new types of economic systems — from universal basic income to new variations of socialism to a more regulated capitalist system — that will result from the enormous impacts of autonomous vehicles.
71. In the path to a truly driverless future, there will be a number of key tipping points. At the moment, freight delivery may push autonomous vehicle use sooner than people transport. Large trucking companies may have the financial means and legislative influence to make rapid, dramatic changes. They are also better positioned to support hybrid approaches where only parts of their fleet or parts of the routes are automated.
72. Autonomous vehicles will radically change the power centers of the world. They will be the beginning of the end of burning hydrocarbons. The powerful interests who control these industries today will fight viciously to stop this. There may even be wars to slow down this process as oil prices start to plummet and demand dries up.
73. Autonomous vehicles will continue to play a larger role in all aspects of war — from surveillance to troop/robot movement to logistics support to actual engagement. Drones will be complemented by additional on-the-ground, in-space, in-the-water and under-the-water autonomous vehicles.
Note: My original article was inspired by a presentation by Ryan Chin, CEO of Optimus Ridespeak at an MIT event about autonomous vehicles. He really got me thinking about how profound these advances could be to our lives. I’m sure some of my thoughts above came from him.