As automakers rush to develop an autonomous vehicle there will be major changes to our society that have not yet been completely understood. Here are some potential impacts that could dramatically change our lives.
1) Employment distribution
Initially the cost of autonomous vehicles will be high, but as the technology improves and costs become significantly lower, the transition to autonomous drone vehicles will be a big threat for those people who currently gain their employment from driving a vehicle of any sort. This will be particularly evident in taxi operators, delivery vehicle drivers and truck drivers, as well there will be a side impact in related industries such as material handling as forklift operators are replaced with autonomous vehicles.
Practically, examples of how a change might look like are:
- a) Calling a Taxi
This will involve a request using your smartphone app (like Uber today) and an autonomous vehicle soon rolling around to pick you up and take you to your destination.
- b) Delivery Vehicles
These will function along pre-planned routes (with some adaptability for traffic conditions), and will be able to operate 24-7, greatly improving response times. For colder climates, autonomous snow plows and road salters will keep the roads free from snow for longer periods.
- c) Long distance trucking
Delivery of goods by road will become quicker and much more efficient as there will be no need for driver breaks
- d) Material Handling
It is quite feasible that a large warehouse could operate with only a few people as forklifts and parts pickers will be replaced by materials and robots who process the order and make it available for the autonomous vehicle to deliver to their customer.
- e) Public Transport
It is likely that Buses and Trains will also be able to operate autonomously, with some subway systems already operating in such a fashion.
2) Road Safety
Without a doubt a roads become ‘smarter’ and vehicles become more autonomously operated, road safety should improve significantly. Impeding dangers can quickly be communicated to vehicles, and potentially dangerous situations quickly averted. While it is unlikely there will be a ‘zero road toll’, there’s no doubt dramatic falls in death and injury should occur.
There are vexing legal questions though that need to be answered if an autonomous vehicle crashes or causes others to crash. Is the crash the owner’s responsibility or the manufacturer’s responsibility due to a defect in the programming of the autonomous vehicle driving code? With responsibility comes the question of insurance and who pays for the associated costs.
Once these issues are addressed, reductions in vehicle insurance should also be possible as crashes are reduced and the road toll lowered.
3) Efficient multi-purpose vehicle use
Currently, most vehicles spend 90-95% of their time not operating. If a vehicle can be used 60-70% of the time through autonomous vehicles being flexible in their characteristics – ie able to transport people and make deliveries as required, less people will need to own a vehicle. This is the basis for vehicle sharing services such as Zip Car and Autoshare, and Ford is already trying multi person vehicle leases. However, the efficiency could be further improved with autonomous vehicles, and Ford is set to begin a trial of a low speed system like this in Austin, Texas. Such efficiency increases will also cause a reduction in natural demand for vehicles, with fewer people requiring vehicles for their household.
4) The transportation liberation for the disabled and elderly
For those who are now not capable of driving, the autonomous vehicle will be a revelation. In the past the disabled have relied on converted taxis, Wheelchair accessible busses or owning an expensive wheel chair converted van, or vehicle fitted with hand controls. These people will be able to call an autonomous taxi quickly and easily, with many vehicles designed to easily accommodate wheelchairs. This will greatly improve the chances of these people to find jobs as well as enjoy the pleasures of life that all able bodied people take for granted.
James Carter is Principal of Vision Mobility, a Toronto based consultancy that specializes in helping Startups, Government, Industry Associations and established companies better understand New Mobility and how to pivot towards new opportunities. James has over 20 years automotive experience, including 19 years with Toyota in Australia, Japan and North America. Follow James on LinkedIn.