Robo-cars, Uber Will Save Us Billions, Keep Us From Crashing And Put An End … – Forbes
One of the great American rites of passage has been the teenager earning his or her driver’s license. Nearly everyone went through some version of a parent trying to teach them to operate the family car, the trepidation of taking the driving test and the subsequent few years, where statistically you were disturbing likely to kill yourself or someone else. The good news is if you’re reading this, you made it. The better news is that your children, if they’re young enough today, likely never will have to go through what you did. Driving as we know it — and the cars we do it in — are both endangered species. What’s coming to replace them will be safer, cleaner and cheaper. And it’s arriving sooner than you might think.
Three factors are at play here: First, we’re driving less overall, with per-capita miles driven having fallen for more than a decade. (Even total miles are more or less flat despite population growth and the economic recovery.) Second, when we need to get around, it’s more possible to do so without getting behind the wheel. Whether you’re taking an Uber or Lyft in places where taxis have traditionally been an expensive or inadequate option or live in one of the many cities undergoing a mass-transit renaissance, mobilty options are improving. Third, true self-driving, autonomous cars are coming. Probably not by decade’s end, though we’ll see some cars that can manage limited robotic capabilites on the highway sooner, but almost certainly by 2030. That, coincidentally is 16 years from now, right around when a baby born today would be getting a driver’s license.
We’re ready for our robot overlords
Despite the fact that nearly every story about self-driving cars mentions worst-case scenarios or brings up concerns about who will be liable in a crash, most of us are ready to let go of the wheel. Two recent surveys, one conducted by insurance.com and another from the University of Michigan showed similarly favorable reactions to the technology. In each survey, only 1 in 4 respondents were outright Luddites when it came to the technology, refusing to consider being chauffeured around by a robotic car. When the insurance.com respondents were told the self-driving vehicle would lower their rates, those that would consider one jumped from 75% to 86%.
Interestingly, the insurance.com survey also found that nearly 3/4 of people “don’t think the cars of model year 2040 will operate in ways familiar to the drivers of 2014.” The vehicle recently demoed by Google is the embodiment of this. Lacking a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals, it’s basically an automated people mover out of a theme park, except that it doesn’t require a pre-designed track to run on.
It’s fair to note that the Michigan survey shows a reluctance to pay a premium for these cars, but it’s also irrelevant. Once you can buy cars that drive themselves, those vehicles will be the best operated on the road. They will cost less to insure. And perhaps more importantly, they often won’t need to be owned. Many of us drive only occasionally, yet still pay all the costs of vehicle ownership. A fleet of Uber-like vehicles you can order to anywhere 24/7 but cost the customer less begin to render the very idea of having your own car increasingly absurd.
Time flies like an arrow
There will be those who live far enough from city centers that car ownership makes sense, even when the car can drive itself. Waiting 30 minutes for your robo-car to arrive every time you need to leave the house might not be acceptable. Similarly, those with the youngest children might choose to keep the same vehicle around loaded with the just-right car seat, a stroller and whatever else your baby always seems to require. But, of course, you’ll be especially interested in a car you don’t have to drive.
The folks at Mojomotors did an infographic (which you can see here) compiling a list of predictions about when the self-driving revolution will start and also when the human-driver will become an endangered species. What’s important to note is that nearly every automaker on the planet is trying to advance this technology, not just Google. At first, what you’ll see is limited to what amounts to very advanced cruise control: the ability to not just maintain speed on the highway, but also to follow the curves of the road. That technology in one form or another will likely arrive from Mercedes, Audi, GM, Nissan, Volvo and Tesla before the end of the decade.
From there, fully autonomous driving on the highway won’t be far behind. Google’s prototypes based on the Lexus RX and the Toyota Prius already do this fantastically well, at least in good weather. While there is constant haranguing about cost, a startup called Cruise Automation plans on offering a retrofit kit for the Audi A4 for just $10,000 by early next year. Given that it’s talking small volumes and just getting started, it’s not difficult to imagine the cost going even lower very soon.
Google does use a much more expensive system, but even there a recent Wall Street Journal story that ostensibly was about how the laser arrays used are too expensive for mass production contained mostly a bunch of quotes from suppliers like “samples to car manufacturers [will run] about $10,000 apiece, but the price will go down to $500 or less by the time it is embedded in cars.” Everything needed is going to cost much less once it’s built into a lot more cars.
You say you want a revolution
In that respect, predictions about the future are almost certainly pessimistic when it comes to adoption of these new technologies. This chart from Asymco illustrates how much faster things happen today than they once did. While it took decades for the telephone, the automobile, even electricity to fully penetrate society, it now takes just a few years for things like HDTV or the smartphone to find their way practically everywhere.
Those smartphones, each of which is location aware, make possible an app like Uber, which has grown faster than nearly everyone believed possible. Investors believe the company will ultimately be worth a Facebook-like $150 billion — or more. A similar phenomenon is likely to play out with self-driving cars and when they combine with transportation on demand, the downhill momentum will be unstoppable. Cars last an average of more than 11 years in part because reliability has improved while the economy has grown only slowly. But when we reach the point where owning an old car is more costly than either getting a new one — or not having one at all, it won’t take long for that to change.