A recent trip to the tax attorney’s office (it’s that time of year again) put me in close proximity to a fellow client as we waited. This guy was one of the lead developers of autonomous vehicles so I picked his brain for a while. He said his company is on track to have products on the road in four or five years. Here’s a little heads up for those of you who think you know how driverless cars will play out in the culture and economy.
The first commercial adopters of this technology (other than the military) will be fleets of long haul trucks. The big box retailers have already calculated the savings on labor and fuel efficiency as well as just-in-time delivery optimization with vehicles that aren’t burdened by humans.
Uber and other taxi services have already announced their desire to convert to driverless cars in an attempt to improve service and lower costs. Car sharing services may convert to the on demand driverless taxi model as well. The U-Haul folks will eventually morph with the storage pod pick up and delivery services that are already in operation.
Municipal governments hemorrhaging cash for salaries, health insurance, and pension costs will find it irresistible to phase out humans for sanitation vehicles. When I was a kid there were three men (and they were, in fact, always men) on each truck. Today there’s one person with a video camera and a robotic arm collecting the trash. Soon the truck and the robot arm won’t need a human at all. We can expect the same trajectory for mail carriers, utility meter readers, and other such activities.
City buses will eventually see the end of human drivers, particularly as dedicated bus lanes and BRT come to dominate the surviving transit systems. In many suburban locations public buses may cease to exist at all due to loss of funding and competition from decentralized on demand services.
Even ambulances and fire trucks can be made more cost efficient if drivers are eliminated. The real value of humans is in their skill as EMS workers and firefighters rather than drivers. There’s already a well established precedent for existing unionized workers to accept such innovation in order to preserve their positions and benefits at the expense of future hires.
You need look no farther than the fully digitized and mechanized toll both or parking garage to see how this is going to play out over time. The end result of all this is that some highly skilled workers are going to make lots of money in innovative technologies while large numbers of less educated people are going to be made redundant.
For those of you who expect to be sitting in your own personal car being whisked around in effortless comfort and privacy as you commute to distant suburban locations… Not quite. The true promise of autonomous vehicles isn’t about you. It’s about the larger institutions that are relentlessly squeezing costs out of the system and optimizing expensive existing infrastructure. Aging highways will be maintained by charging for their use on a mile-by-mile pay-per-view basis. Traffic congestion will be solved by having more people ride in fewer vehicles. The rich will have stylish robotic SUV chauffeurs. Everyone else will be climbing inside a fully loaded eight or twelve passenger minivan bound for the office park. And in the future you will choose this voluntarily based on price.
Here’s something else to consider. Insurance companies will become more and more influential players in the culture and economy. A few insurers are already offering customers a discount for having their cars chipped and monitored. Sooner rather than later auto coverage will be based on how well and how often a human drives. In the not-too-distant future the chips and monitoring may not be entirely negotiable unless you’re willing to pay a great deal extra for the privilege of opting out. You may think you’re a good driver, but you may quickly and expensively be informed otherwise by the authorities. That’s going to pull a lot of people off the road, especially when the gooey details of your swerving and speeding are cross referenced with local law enforcement. But the cops won’t necessarily be in squad cars. They’ll be the cars themselves. That’s coming too. And sooner than you think. Brace yourself.