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Yesterday, I did something that I have done just twice this entire year: I drove a car.
I was booked to give a talk in a smalller city near the North Sea coast and had to drive up there for about three hours. As I do not own a car, I had to rent one and then took to the famous German Autobahn. Yes, you´ve read correctly: I´m a German man and I don´t own a car. And in fact, I´ve never had one and I probably never will in this life.
And yesterday, I was powerfully reminded of why this is the case: because it´s a stupid waste of time. I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them (or the empty road if things go well). How many books could be read in that time? How many blog posts or love letters could be written? How many business plans could be created?
I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them.
Ok, not each and every country has the same quality public transportation system as Germany does (I take busses, trains, and the occasional cab to go basically everywhere). And yes, I do concede some people have fun while driving. Supposedly, it gives them a sense of freedom and being in control. And yes, driving a car, you can listen to music, you can make phone-calls using a hands-free kit, and you could even see driving as a mindfulness exercise – but let´s be honest here: how many people really do this on a regular basis? It´s no surprise that CEOs and other “VIPs” typically have a chauffeur. Their time is seen as too valuable to be driving a car. But isn´t that true for all of us?
That´s why I believe that driverless cars will be one of the most important pieces of (positive) technology to hit the market in the near future. Yes, it´s not that far away. If you´re interested, please check out this superb article that´ll tell you that they are already driving around on our streets, at least in some parts of the USA – and they are already (at least) as safe as the average human driver.
The point of market entry can and will be postponed by a couple of years, mostly because of juridical problems in the context of accountability (Who´s responsible when a driverless car causes an accident?) – but as always, those things will be worked out at the end of the day. Market entry will probably be postponed by the car manufacturers themselves, because they will – ironically – be the biggest losers in this game (and that´s some very bad news for Germany, as millions and millions of jobs depend on the automotive sector). But it´s going to happen.
Here´s what we´re going to see in my imagination: Google will buy Tesla and afterwards Uber. Google has the navigational data and the necessary technologies in robotics and visual detection, Tesla has premium eco-friendly cars and especially the battery technology, and Uber will supply the reservation system. Of course, there could be lots of other contestants, but I don´t think this stunt can be pulled of by small start-ups – there´s too much money involved in R&D.
So, why is all of this bad news for car manufacturers?
Because personally owning a car is one of the most inefficient things a lot of us do. Cars that are not commercially used just stand around at least 90% of the day. And when we use them, we use them inefficiently. We´re driving alone most of the time instead of using up all of the available space, and we´re bad drivers in the sense that we do not take the shortest available route, that we create traffic jams, and so on. So basically, once the technology will be market-ready, the demand for cars is going to plummet to (my personal estimation) some 20% percent of the current level within a couple of years. This is also consistent with most surveys of Gen Y – most of them want connected and flawless mobility, but do not want to own a car. We will need to have a sufficient supply of driverless cars and they will have to be replaced regularly because they will be used almost without rest periods. And of course, some people still will want to own a car – just because. But otherwise, there´s going to be a lot less of them. And believe me, this is very(!!) good news for mankind, except for the automotive industry (and cab/truck drivers, probably).
Driverless driving means
- more efficient usage (less standstill, more car sharing, always use of shortest distance etc.) = less cars = less use of fossil fuel/less pollution and other natural resources (this also pertains to the manufacturing process);
- saver travel as driverless cars will produce far less accidents. More than 30.000 people are killed in the USA per year in car accidents. Most of those are caused by human error. Driverless cars will overlook fewer objects and they will also communicate with each other. This will not only minimize accidents but will also more or less eradicate traffic jams – as cars will be driving in a kind of convoy and otherwise, actively try to avoid crowded routes;
- less stress and burnout and other health-related issues (see this Time article for an overview over negative effects of commuting);
- massive unharnessing of human consciousness as people will be able to concentrate on more productive issues that steering a car from A to B.
The biggest hurdle to take (apart from the juridical challenges mentioned above) is the quality and cost of the visual detection unit that ensures the autonomous car does not hit other objects. The one that Google uses right now for their projects supposedly costs around 80.000 US$ per unit. But if you take a look at, e.g., the development of the cost for computer storage over the past decades, you basically know it´s just a matter of time until a system will be available for the mass market.