Back around the end of the century I had the pleasure of contributing to a book called Next-Trends for the Near Future published by Overlook Press. I've recently taken that book off the shelf and thumbed through it. Got some things right, but boy did we miss some big trends that have come to define the last 17 years. So don't read the following as a gospel of what will come to pass. Something will pop out of left field that none of us were expecting (now that's something you can be sure of...). What I'm committing to electrons are some extrapolations based on observations, readings, interviews with experts and my just plain love of science.
So each week, I'll be throwing out a trend idea and expanding on it a little. Some are cool, some are benign and some may be truly frightening. I think all of them will affect us in some way, shape or form down the road.
The coming driver-less vehicle revolution
The end of auto insurance? Licences?
Okay, so this is a topic we've all seen and heard quite a lot of in the past year or so. Still, many people either scoff at the idea or figure it's so far down the road (pun intended) that it won't really affect them. Kind of like the horse and buggy drivers in the early 20th century who I'm sure said that no unreliable machine would replace a good team of horses on a muddy turnpike. The technology is here and improving all the time. The fact that hundreds of thousands of lives might be saved yearly worldwide is a nice benefit as well. But what are some of the implications of a future full of autonomous vehicles?
One of the first issues that will need to solved is the ethical question. In the event of a potential fatal accident who gets saved and who gets sacrificed? It's a big question and it will occupy the thoughts of ethicists, government and insurance companies for quite some time I think. Which brings us to the question of insurance. So who is insured if the vehicle is making the decisions? Sure there will be a period of time, perhaps a lengthy one, where driver-less cars and trucks share the road with human drivers who will carry insurance. But once the vehicle become autonomous, who then carries that burden? If you privately own your car or truck, then you may have to still pay. But premiums may be reduced as accidents decline. But what if you choose not to own? Imagine a future full of fleets of Zip/Uber types of vehicles cruising the streets and highways, available on demand and extremely safe. If you're an insurance company you may be a bit concerned about future revenues. A vast pool of premium payers who may just disappear and a reduction in risk for fleet and individual owners. Not to mention collision shops. Will they go the way of wheelwrights and blacksmiths?
Will our children's children even bother to get a license when it will be easy to order a vehicle anywhere, anytime? Will rental car companies like Hertz and Enterprise become global juggernauts? While I'm sure there will be enthusiasts who will own and drive traditional vehicles their numbers may decline over the years and eventually be phased out of many major thoroughfares.Perhaps they will be relegated to special roads the way horse riders are today. With no need to learn how to drive a car or truck there may be no need for any kind of license. If a 12 year old can summon up a vehicle then the concept of individual licenses may be on the way out. I'm not worried about governments losing license revenues. They'll find a way to make up for any lost income. Tracking and taxing mileage or something like that. They are creative to say the least.
What will be interesting is the future of our largest pool of employees: truck and livery drivers. Long haul truckers may be the first to see their category shrink as autonomous trucks have already made successful appearances. The American Trucking Association estimate that there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US. We will definitely see a reduction of these number in our lifetime as the industry adopts new technologies. Yet this number is a drop in the bucket. An Oxford University study estimates that 47% of all US jobs may be at risk of replacement by machines within the next 20 years -but that's another story for another day.
So the ramifications of autonomous vehicles are many. First off will be the significant mindset shift that will be needed among the public. We won't easily give up the personal freedom of driving that is so ingrained in our culture. Hard to imagine Fast and Furious 10 with the Vin Diesel sitting in the back seat of self driving Camaro. Where the implications get interesting are when they impact the industries that cars and trucks have spawned...insurance and license fees; trucking and taxi jobs; collision and repair shops; traffic courts; organ donors (a morbid fact but yes); automotive aftermarket manufacturers and retailers...And I didn't even get to motorcycle riders.
We are watching the future slowly unfold before us. This is one of those cases that seem to moving forward in fits and starts and then sudden take us by surprise.These "fits and starts" are taking place right now so f you think it's so far in the future that it won't affect you or me think about this. Last October a self driving semi, powered by Otto -the autonomous vehicle company purchased by Uber - made a successful 120 mile trip down a Colorado interstate to deliver a cargo of Budweiser. A "driver" sat in the sleep compartment as a safety consideration. Budweiser stated that autonomous delivery trucks would save the company $50 million a year - even if a driver went along as a contingency - the saving would come in fuel savings and increased delivery frequency. Keep your eyes on the road!