Autonomous vehicles are the focus of attention from Silicon Valley to the Treasury. Once they catch on, our roads and our workplaces will be transformed
The chancellor may have been keen to talk about the autonomous future in his budget, but the money that talked loudest last week came from Uber’s billion-pound deal with Swedish carmaker Volvo.
The scale of the order suggests driverless cars could indeed be just around the corner: 24,000 Volvos are to be kitted out with the ride-hailing company’s self-driving technology between 2019 and 2021. Assuming a robot driver can do three times as many shifts as a human, those cars alone could replace, for example, every non-Uber taxi or minicab in London.
How Uber deploys its new driverless SUVs remains to be seen: but the news underlines how the technology could rapidly change the face of transport, manufacturing and work. So who will win and lose in the driverless future?
The race has been led by Google’s self-driving division, now spun off as Waymo, which has just started trials of a driverless taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona. Even before its first lift has been hailed by a member of the public – and without having made a car of its own, as it currently buys in Chrysler minivans – Waymo has been valued at $70bn (£52bn) by Morgan Stanley.
Mobileye, an Israeli maker of chips and cameras for self-driving vehicles with revenues of only $300m a year, was bought by Intel for $15.3bn in March. Uber is rushing to develop its own robo-taxi tech to scale up profits on its enormous global customer base.
Richard Cuerden, academy director at the British transport research centre TRL, says of the future: “It’s very unlikely that we will buy cars as we do now for personal ownership. Firms will make money through things like data sharing and advertising.”
The utopian vision of a driverless future is that just about everyone would benefit from shorter, safer and more productive journeys. If driverlessness means shared ownership, as many hope and believe, as well as more efficient use of road space through intelligent and connected vehicles, there is the scope to massively reduce congestion. If the model also reduces the costs of door-to-door transport, cars could go a long way to ensuring more independent mobility for the elderly and disabled.
Online media and retailers
Fewer young people are buying cars, and not just because they are strapped for cash: smartphones and tablets mean journeys by bus or train are more enjoyable. Today’s stressed driver can hope for a similar future, Cuerden says: “You needn’t face forward any more, you’ll be doing a million different things. The holy grail is to free up that time.” Watching Netflix, Instagramming the motorway, internet shopping: a whole new segment of the population will be online and available.
The unveiling by Elon Musk of Tesla’s Semi electric truck, with its autopilot features, will have caught the attention of haulage firms. Around one-third of costs in the $7bn US trucking industry is drivers’ wages.
In the UK, salaries have risen due to a lack of drivers: the Freight Transport Association last year said there was a shortfall of almost 35,000 drivers compared with available HGVs. Firms whose delivery routes and schedules are minutely plotted to save time, fuel and money, will probably hope that trials of “platooned” lorries – linked vehicles travelling in convoy with perhaps just one driver in the lead cab – are just the first step to a driverless future.
As chancellor Philip Hammond said while announcing a £400m fund for charging networks, the road to autonomy starts with electric cars. And those batteries need minerals: the global lithium-ion battery market is expected to more than double in value in the next seven years to around $75bn, according to Transparency Market Research, as electric car sales grow. Elements such as cobalt will be in increasing demand, and mining firms such as Glencore have already struck deals with carmakers who want to lock in supplies.
Traditional car manufacturers
Many expect the number of vehicles in private household ownership to fall. Car manufacturers have been hiring directors from software and tech firms as the market has tilted – witness Tesla’s valuation surpassing Ford and GM’s this year.
Partnerships between Ford and Uber’s rival Lyft, as well as Volvo’s Uber deal, could point to how sales evolve. Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says: “Traditional sales have already been going down year-on-year as people go to a leasing model.
“Ford and BMW have car-share businesses, while BMW is diversifying into repurposing batteries as energy storage solutions in homes. The challenge is where they develop their business models.”
The majority of car accidents involve some element of human error, and predictions in studies of the potential drop in fatalities from self-driving cars have ranged from 80 to 95%. KPMG found insurance premiums could be expected to drop by 50% in a decade.
On the other hand, some expect an increase in crashes – and more wrangles for insurers’ legal departments – during the transition period while humans and machines share the roads.
Other issues remain, as Martyn Thomas, professor of IT at Gresham College, warns: “How they will price the risk of hacking is a complete mystery: a cybersecurity vulnerability that could be exploited by criminals could affect thousands of cars in a single day and put insurers out of business.”
But, says Nick Reed, head of mobility research at component maker Bosch, motor insurance has to survive, even if it is passed to manufacturers and fleets once owner-drivers become passengers: “The business model will change. But consumers always need to have the confidence that, in the event of an incident, there is compensation.”
Service stations and hotels
Goodbye, Moto? The appeal of a picnic on the M6 may diminish substantially when humans are no longer prompted by driver fatigue to pull in, and are instead engrossed in season 54 of The Simpsons. Electric charging networks may well not operate like petrol stations, where a vehicle has to pull in to refuel. However, should full autonomy allow all occupants to drink en route, more frequent stops could become a human necessity.
While few UK journeys might require an overnight commute, a vehicle comfortable enough to sleep in could make hotels a less necessary option for business travellers – while longer US trips might be continued without the need for a roadside motel.
Around a million people in the UK who drive for a living could have to retrain, the chancellor said, acknowledging that “for some people, this will be very challenging”.
Cuerden is not convinced that so many jobs would be lost: “We’re leading the HGV platooning trials, which see trucks operating more effectively – but all would need drivers for now. Long term, they might have time on their hands, but perform new tasks.”
By 2030, he believes, the bulk of journeys will be covered autonomously, but a human backup could remain. Meanwhile, many taxi firms still value “the customer interface, the human touch,” Cuerden says. “So drivers might become stewards.”
The £46bn that the UK government claims to have forsaken by freezing fuel duty may be only a warm-up for the gaping hole that an all-electric fleet would mean. Tens of millions in revenue for traffic offences could also be jeopardised by law-abiding robots.
British councils also made a £750m profit on parking in 2016. Some have predicted that the UK parking industry, worth £1.5bn in 2015, would effectively disappear in a world of fewer cars.
However, the British Parking Association remains defiantly upbeat: “The number of cars entering, exiting and navigating a parking facility will likely be very much the same as it is now. Just without people.”
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