Thursday, October 3, 2013

A New Economy: Industries of the Autonomous Vehicle

I'm intrigued, excited and fascinated by the autonomous vehicle for so many reasons.  Many are personal, but I am also anxious to see how it plays out on a macro economic scale.  Disruptive technologies always shuttle in with them new business needs that most people wouldn't have imagined just years prior.  Whole industries crop up as a result of the technologies or ways of doing business differently.  There are ultimately winners and losers, and even the winners will eventually get replaced.  The history of innovation fascinates me, but what really gets me going is what the future could hold.  When self-driving cars are the norm, whole industries will be demolished, and brand new ones, unfathomable ones, will rise up.  The developed world and emerging economies will look very different, and what they look like are what I want to explore here.  

The Driverless Vehicle
Most of us see autonomous vehicles as modes of transportation for ourselves that are automated.  This is, however, just one exciting application of vehicle autonomy.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, we will no longer need truck drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs or valets, because the vehicles can operate without humans inside.  Just imagine calling a cab from your smart phone (or whatever device we use in the future), and getting into a completely empty vehicle, being driven to your destination, and getting out so that the cab can go pick up another passenger.  Packages will be shipped across the country in trucks with no cab and no human; thus they will not have to stop for sleeping breaks or food, and will be faster and safer.  When your own self-driving car brings you to your destination, it can let you out at the front door and go park itself.  Then you can call it to come get you when you are ready to leave, combining valets and chauffeurs into a single function independent of a human to pay or tip.  

Rentals and Contracted Services
Autonomous vehicles will ultimately reduce the price of cab fares, because they will not require a human to be able to make a living off of the profits.  The price will compete with public transportation, which has its own drawbacks (slower, sitting next to weirdos, uncomfortable), and thus the use of public transportation may also become extinct.  People own private vehicles today for many reasons, but some of those are basically to combat the negatives associated with the alternatives: cabs are too expensive and public transportation stinks for reasons previously alluded to.  So as the expense of cabs comes down (and the lack of some creepy immigrant who can't speak English as the driver), they become a favorable alternative.  Thus, fewer people will own private vehicles.  In addition, many private vehicles will be put to use on some sort of contract basis as a cab.  See, it would seem silly to have a perfectly functional vehicle sit in a parking lot, baking in the sun or getting drenched in the rain or snow while you are working for 8 to 12 hours a day.  Sure, some people won't want strangers in their cars, but others would find it a marvelous opportunity to send their car off after its delivered them to their office and have it earn some supplemental income while they are working.  Sure, it puts mileage and wear and tear on the car, but if owned, it will probably be more profitable than just letting it sit each day.  In-car camera systems will be installed to detract from vandalism; customers will be automatically charged by the contract service for any damage done.  

More Entertainment and Productivity Technologies
There are already entertainment packages available today, but most of them consider distraction of the driver as a threat and take precautionary steps towards not distracting the driver. With no human driver to distract, consumption of video, music and game entertainment will go through the roof.  Imagine streaming the likes of Netflix into your car while you are transported to work, and picking up where you left off on your return trip.  Your car will have surround sound, 3D (or 4D) entertainment systems and satellite-enabled video conferencing with internet connectivity for your devices.  Carpooling?  A soundproof barrier can separate you and your companion so you can work on or enjoy separate activities without plugging your ears with headphones.  

Destination Parking Grounds
I don't know exactly what to call this, but DPGs sound just as good as any other name I came up with (Potels, anyone?).  This will be a new industry for the avid traveler who can work remotely or needs to travel for work.  It's a mix between a motel and an RV camping site.  Let's say you have a destination 6 to 8 hours away.  You need or want to be there tomorrow.  You pack your things, set your destination and depart at night.  You curl up in your comfy car bed while your car autonomy does the driving.  You get a full night's sleep, and when you awake, you are in another state or perhaps another country.  The car has pulled into a DPG, where there are showers and dressing rooms available at a minimal fee.  You grab your bag, hop in the shower, get dressed, and return to your car.  Now you have just a few more miles to drive to get to your actual destination.  Or, if you are going to be working remotely, you set up your office computer in your car, and start taking calls and discussing metrics, or whatever it is you do.  When work is done, then you get to go have drinks with your friend in the area, or visit that fantastic restaurant you read about.  Travel no longer requires a day, you travel in your sleep so you can maximize your time awake.  With DPGs, some people may give up their homes and live out of their cars, hopping from DPG to DPG, traveling the country or world while still being able to get work done.  Their cars may be equipped with small washers and dryers, mini-kitchenettes and wine refrigerators.  

Insurance, Law Enforcement and Lawyers
DUIs will be a thing of the past, so law enforcement and DUI attorneys will have to find something else to do.  But new types of insurance will exist; there will be specialists for cars with human drivers, and the majority of car insurance policies will assume no driver liability.  Insurance prices should go down overall, and regulations may drop the requirement to have insurance on autonomous cars.  Law enforcement and insurance will be more concerned about people hacking the settings on their autonomous vehicles.  Lawyers and IT security experts will concern themselves with people hacking into others' cars.  

While people may still flock to car racing with human drivers, there will be some sports fans that will favor autonomous vehicle racing.  These races will be all about the logic used in the programming, the equipment in the cars, and the ability of the cars to navigate and react to their surrounding competitors.  These cars will be willing to crash and burn, making for spectacularly brutal attacks that human drivers wouldn't risk.  

Better, Real-Time Navigation Systems
When I automate a process at work, there is an added bonus that the programming also captures data that I would otherwise not bother capturing.  Likewise, when autonomous cars are commonplace, they can transmit commute time and traffic data to centralized locations to allow other cars to better adjust their routes in real time.  If that sounds too Big Brother-ish, consider that at a minimum, the cars can determine the best commute routes by time of day and seasonal trends for the specific owners' commutes (without transmitting any data to anyone else), and recommend departure times to their drivers based on historical statistics.  "Best" commute routes can be defined by fastest, most consistent, most energy conservative, or safest.  Can you even imagine having that kind of analysis today?

Modular Vehicle Assemblies
The customization of your car's interior will become an industry onto itself.  Car design can take on a whole new string of innovations, from sleeping arrangements and vanities to finish getting ready for work while commuting.  You could get a massage on your commute, or practice your Italian, or curl your hair and put on makeup (without the near misses and accidents if attempted today).  But don't expect to have too much time, because when all cars on the road are autonomous, commutes will be much faster, with less stop-and-go reactions than human drivers.  No matter what your needs, there will be products available to fit them.  High-end car manufacturers will sell complete, luxury packages customizable on the web before the car is built, while economy car manufacturers will sell a shell for which you can add on and replace modules as you see fit throughout the life of the vehicle.  

Driverless Drive Thrus
Your car will be able to run some errands for you while you are at work or asleep.  It can pick up your prescriptions at Walgreens, order and pick up Jack-in-the-Box for lunch, drop off packages at the post office, and pick up Christmas gifts bought online at Best Buy.  Stores and restaurants will adapt by having a special drive thru line for autonomous vehicles to transmit their orders via technology like Bluetooth (or to keep the cars off the grid, generating a QR code that can be scanned) and then the drive thrus will have robot arms to deliver the orders into the autonomous vehicles.  They will get their own car washes, and maybe even go to the gas stations themselves (attendants may need to fill the tank).  Forget your wallet or some paperwork at home?  Send your car home and have your wife or son put the wallet or paperwork in the car, and then call your car back to your location.  Of course, wallets and paperwork may be on their way out, but surely there will be something you will need.  

I'm sure there are other industries which we can't even imagine right now, but I think these are already going to rock the world and change the lives of millions.  

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