I’m often met with disbelief when I say that most of today’s children will not need a driver’s license. Few people believe that we are that close to having fully autonomous vehicles; yet the signs say that we are. Look at the recent advancements in enabling technologies (computing power, sensors, artificial intelligence, etc.) – and look at the market drivers – and it’s easy to see that they’re just around the corner.
For a moment, let’s forget that all major automakers plan to have highly autonomous vehicles (HAVs) available in a couple of years, and fully autonomous vehicles (FAVs) for sale in the next five years (here is a description of the different automation levels). Let’s forget that Google’s spinoff Waymo’s self-driving vehicles have already logged 2,000,000 FAV miles (with only one accident caused by their cars). Let’s forget that Tesla plans to demonstrate an FAV cross-country roadtrip this year without a human driver ever getting involved. Forget that an HAV truck has already made the first autonomous delivery.
Technology is Growing Exponentially
There are two reasons FAVs will be here before we know it. The first reason is that current technological advancement isn’t linear – it’s exponential. Humans don’t think exponentially, we think linearly. But when something grows exponentially, compared to linearly, it’s ridiculously fast. Once it gets going, it’s not light speed, it’s ludicrous speed. Maybe you’ve heard the legend of the man who told the king to pay him with rice on a chessboard – starting with one grain on the first square and doubling the number of rice grains with each additional square. How much rice is that? 18,466,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice – or 461 billion tons (yes, billion with a B). That is why in 2004, when the best FAV made it through only 7 miles of DARPA’s 150-mile course, the best minds thought FAVs were at least 30 years away. But only 5 years later, Google had an FAV on the road.
Economics in the Driver’s Seat
But fast, capable, and cheap technology alone won’t make it happen. The more important reason you’ll see FAVs soon is because it makes economic sense. Not for you as an individual – yet – but for many companies it does, and those companies are investing to get there first.
The biggest economic driver for FAVs is the shipping industry (mostly trucking, but FedEx and UPS aren’t that far behind). Imagine how much money a trucking company can save if they don’t have to pay drivers. Imagine how much more money they make when their trucks can drive 24×7, with no need to stop for food or sleeping – just fuel (and how hard will it be to add on a few extra fuel tanks to increase their range?). They’ll save a ton on salaries and benefits for drivers. They’ll need half as many trucks in their fleet. They’ll deliver goods faster. Not to mention the cost savings from fewer accidents. Many truck manufacturers are already testing HAVs and FAVs (at least for traveling from parking lot to parking lot) won’t be far behind.
Right behind the trucking industry is the taxi industry. More specifically, the new taxi industry – Uber, Lyft, and the like. Uber is already testing HAVs in several states. Uber has recognized that the easiest way to profitability is to be the first to provide a driverless taxi service. Although the economic inflection point is probably easier for trucking, Uber may very well get there first because they’ll have more data to leverage. (I figure the trucking industry will be the first with HAVs and Uber will be the first with FAVs…but which of those happens first? Too close to call.)
…But then there’s Adoption
“So what?” you say. “Neither of these has anything to do with me.” Maybe not. But these efforts will provide much of what’s needed to bring FAVs to market. One, they will log millions of more miles to improve the artificial intelligence needed to drive them safely under all imaginable circumstances. Two, they will help overcome public skepticism – if autonomous vehicles are on the road, what prevents us from adding more? Three, they will drive down the cost of the technology.
It is these three factors that will make FAVs available to consumers quickly, and they will appeal to a certain consumer groups – suburbanites with long commutes, executives with busy schedules, affluent tech aficionados, and people buying a new car who intend to keep it for 5+ years. These groups may be relatively small, but they will be the early adopters that put these vehicles on the road. Their reception – and the resulting market sentiment – will determine how fast other groups jump in.
Here’s what I expect. HAVs will be available within two years. You’ll be able to buy an FAV within three. FAVs will be affordable to the average consumer in five. That’s why your kid won’t need a driver’s license. That’s when things will get really interesting…and I’ll talk about that in my next post.