On a recent visit to the USA, I came across several professors and entrepreneurs who held the view that autonomous vehicles would be “an invention with greater significance than the original invention of the automobile”.
Seeing many of the world’s earliest automobiles in person, at the enlightening Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, I saw how their design was derived from either a bicycle dispensing with the rider, or a buggy dispensing with the horse.
Autonomous vehicles can be a lot more than just dispensing with the driver. They provide an opportunity for radical rethinking of design and usage.
Massive changes are set to occur in the automobile industry, with many people already choosing to buy rides instead of cars. The continuation of this trend will see today’s car manufacturers and dealerships, rental car companies, taxi companies, ride-sharing companies, bus companies, pickup and delivery services, intercity transportation entities and other transportation services morph into fresh entities with new business models.
Rides will be significantly cheaper than today’s taxis and Ubers, because the major cost – the driver – will be eliminated. For many, it may be financially unattractive to own a car.
Significant lifestyle changes will also be possible. Commuting will no longer be about driving, but focused instead upon working, studying, socialising, entertaining, sleeping, dining and business meetings. Perhaps some rides will be free, funded by face-to-face selling and marketing.
Long distance commuting will have less of a lifestyle impact, but rural and regional transportation will become more integrated. Travelling between meetings will be quicker and more efficient. The elderly and disabled will be more mobile, with no fears of driving on busy roads and no parking problems.
Think about your current daily activities and how driverless cars will change them! You’ll choose what type of car you need, when you need it, and you’ll travel efficiently. New patterns of life, leisure, work and commuting will emerge.
With major growth predicted in our cities over the next few decades, pollution-free autonomous vehicles will be a relief in terms of congestion and amenity.
What happens in our cities when all cars become driverless? Roads will carry up to 3-6 times more traffic. Tailgating may be encouraged for less drag, heightened fuel efficiency and maximum utilisation of road real estate. Speed limits will increase, as will lane channelling during peak hours. Cars will no longer need to park on streets meaning defacto clearways, 24/7. Extra lanes could be added to freeways by making existing lanes narrower. Traffic lights may become superfluous. Cars will reroute depending upon congestion.
Most importantly, roads will be safer, helping to eliminate most of the 34,000 accidents in Australia today at an annual health cost of $16 billion. There will be no guardrails needed if autonomous vehicles are accident free. No acoustic barriers required if all cars are electric. No more driving offences, meaning no fines, no points, fewer police. Drink and drug driving will be eliminated, as will driver distraction from mobile phones. If autonomous cars can see and sense better than humans, and drive without distraction, then pedestrians may be safer as well.
If every car is driverless, we can totally rethink our infrastructure. But the transition won’t come without challenges. How will older cars, driver assisted and driverless cars all coexist in the short to medium term? Will older cars have their own lanes, roads, circuit tracks or specific hours of use? Will they be tolled more to discourage people from driving cars?
For the evolution to autonomous vehicles, digital technology and disruption processes have been converging, resulting in precision GPS, 3D mapping, odometry, deep learning, computer vision, ultrasonic sensors, LiDAR, radar, driver assist options, smartphones, ride sharing and much more new tech.
The driverless car transition will take several decades with a step-by-step approach. Australia has the opportunity to become a global leader in several fields including design, technology, infrastructure, specialist systems and fitout. There are vast opportunities for innovation and technology for associated spin-off and support industries.
Hollywood’s driverless cars such Herbie (‘The Love Bug’ in 1969) and K.I.T.T. (David Hasselhoff’s ‘Knight Rider’ in 1980) no longer seem like far-fetched dreams. Soon we can turn these dreams into reality for new lifestyles, improved amenity and new industries for Australia.
Managing Director, Information Gateways
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