This is Part Two in a three part analysis of the evolving transport industry. The first part of this series is set around a broad-brush-stroke analysis of the logistics of delivery-by-drone, and whether or not there is considered to be potential for this fledgling idea to become commercially viable in any sort of sense. This second part in the series discusses driver-less cars and potential side effects should the technology become mainstream! And the third part of this series will discuss driver-less trucks, and the advancements being made in this area.
Delivery-by-autonomous-vehicle is currently receiving heavy investment by a number of high profile private enterprises and universities around the world. There are a surprising number of interested parties developing their own versions of autonomous vehicles. Presumably, somebody thinks these things are going to sell.
So what types of applications could an autonomous vehicle be put to? Let’s explore some civilian and military possibilities.
In combat engagements, driver-less personnel vehicles have the potential to save lives. How? By reducing the need for a pilot, a driver-less vehicle can use sensors around the vehicle to see instead of glass for vision. This means that one of the key access points into a vehicle – being glass or open air – can instead be replaced by armor plating. There is no need for windows on an autonomous vehicle. With on-board computer, lasers, sonar, cameras and GPS to guide a vehicle, more personnel on board can be immediately combat ready at the point of destination, and be more comprehensively shielded on their way there.
Conventional transport requires at least one driver and possibly a co-pilot. That’s at least two people who will need some additional time to exit the vehicle and join their comrades should they need to collect belongings from within the vehicle prior to egress. The space taken up by the seating positions of the pilot and co-pilot could instead by used for additional combat troops and their gear. A vehicle that did not need forward facing seats could seat additional people in the space taken up by two forward facing people.
In cases where the vehicles’ autopilot system failed, a manual override could be to use a tablet device to manually drive the vehicle – a system that could be used by any one of the passengers from any seating position.
In civilian use, autonomous vehicles will either be used by private enterprise to transport employees, contractors and customers, or by private households to transport family members and friends. Kind of like now.
The biggest benefit for consumers will be taxis that are no longer driven by people. Who amongst us hasn’t had the unpleasant experience of being chauffeured by a person who does not know the way or does not speak the language or has poor hygiene? Most of us will experience the trifecta on at least one Friday night of our lives in the big city.
Thankfully, Johnny Cab has impeccable hygiene, speaks at least five languages, and not only knows every possible route, but which of these routes are currently impassable. However, even with its poly-linguistic capability, your autonomous driver is rubbish at conversation, and it has no idea that the previous fare puked all up and down the back seat and floor. Because Johnny has no nostrils, and isn’t programmed to notice. And don’t forget that entering an autonomous vehicle means paying at destination, or face being locked into the vehicle and driven to a police station and charged with a crime. On the other hand, no more arguments with that driver who claims their EFTPOS is not working. Or not.
At first the well-healed will flock to autonomous vehicles, as it will be seen as a status symbol briefly. At a later point, by which time autonomous vehicles have become commonplace, a niche market will develop where the well-healed will choose to use limousine style services which again include a human driver. Even if that person is in fact never going to steer.
- Accidents – who is at fault?
- Security – who hacked my ride?
- Crime – the evolution of the getaway car?
- Value – manufacturers with fewer recorded accidents will charge more for their vehicles (and people will gladly pay).
In the not-too-distant future, there will be a transition from conventional vehicles only on the road, to sharing the road with autonomous vehicles. It is not anticipated in any future that autonomous vehicles will either contribute to or prevent accidents that otherwise could occur between conventional vehicles. That simplistic statement aside, there will be interesting fluctuations in perceptions. In the beginning, autonomous transport will be grossly out-numbered by conventional vehicles piloted by humans. Any accident in the period of time where autonomous vehicles make up less than 30 percent of the overall vehicle population will be seen to be the fault of the driver-less car (guilty until proven innocent). This will be regardless as to how advanced the navigation system of the autonomous vehicle actually is.
As driver-less cars become more pervasive and evolve even better navigational systems, a tipping point will be reached where government will effectively become compelled to discourage the sale of conventional vehicles, opting instead to encourage only the sale of autonomous vehicles. The reasons will be complex and will take time to garner momentum, but eventually one too many deaths will be attributed to a drunk driver – something that simply cannot happen in an autonomous vehicle. Yes, the freedom to drive ourselves will eventually be lost. That freedom will be lost because one too many people will not be able to control themselves. But in this future, where everyone is a passenger, it will be legal to drink and text at the same time (just like it is for any chauffeured passenger today).
Insurance, when comparing between an autonomous vehicle and an otherwise similar conventional vehicle, the conventional vehicle’s insurance will become more expensive (due to accident potential), before government acts to outlaw conventional vehicles altogether, making this problem moot.
Security and Crime
Will downloading the latest virus protection software for the car be part of our dystopian future? Maybe.
Will it be illegal not to have security measures in place to prevent vehicles from being stolen? Maybe.
Will it be possible to use an autonomous car as a getaway vehicle, or in a drive by shooting? Maybe.
New industries will develop to combat cyber crime specifically targeting vehicle control. Manufacturers will be forced to develop anti-terrorism technologies to prevent vehicles from being used to ram-raid stationary objects (eg. ATMs) or to leave a crime scene. Remember “hit and runs”? Nope.
Vehicle navigational code will require libraries of custom logic to satisfy local, state and federal legislation for and within every country a vehicle is to be sold into. And these codes will be rigorously tested prior to permitting sale.
There will be the usual prestige vehicles – sporty coupes with gull wing doors and exceptionally unnecessary power to weight ratios. There will be luxury wagons with all-leather interior with the last maple’s wood trimming the consoles. And so forth.
But for the rest of us, we’ll now be interested in buying from the vehicle manufacturer that boasts the fewest accidents and the best algorithms for getting there safely. We’ll also want to know that, in the unlikely event of an accident, that the vehicle will predict an outcome which causes the fewest injuries and the fewest fatalities (based on past performance). We will want to purchase the car that will purposefully head to the ‘least cost’ scenario (even if that means sacrificing the occupants of the vehicle in order to save a greater number of people external to the vehicle). Ooh. Grim.
Conversations at the pub will now be: “Yeah, I was in a near-head-on the other day in my car. Thankfully only a kid on the sidewalk was killed because our respective cars swerved away from each other. There’s a court case now to decide whether or not the vehicles should have crashed into each other, causing injury certainly, but maybe not death to any occupants. I’ve already handed over the on-board logs as evidence.” And the guy next to him will say, “Should’ve bought a Google car”.
The biggest headache for government will be that taxis are no longer driven by people. How many cabs are there in your country? Guess which queue these newly unemployed drivers will be joining. The cost to support the overall number of unemployed is predicted to go up.
The good news is, there will be more leisure time for many (just forget that those whose jobs are displaced by autonomous vehicles won’t be able to afford to enjoy their new found leisure).
Will driver-less cars become mainstream? Almost certainly.
It is expected to take decades to transition from conventional ‘drive yourself’ vehicles to a future where only autonomous vehicles will be available to purchase. Maybe by then flying cars will have started to hit the mainstream.