Autonomous vehicles will cause the greatest social and economic transformation the human race has experienced since the advent of the internet, and possibly since the Industrial Revolution, once our society adopts this technology on a widespread basis. It will save over thirty thousand American lives1 and over two million injuries per year2, give Americans seventy-five billion hours3 of their time back, save consumers almost three trillion dollars of disposable income, solve a significant portion of our environmental crisis, electrify America’s automobile fleet, revolutionize urban planning, change the very physical infrastructure of our cities4 and quite possibly end terrorism. In addition to all these grand achievements, autonomous vehicle technology will also do little things for us like free us from having to take the kids to swimming lessons every day. Sounds incredible, right? That’s because it is incredible, but don’t forget that autonomous vehicle technology will also put seven million people in the unemployment line in its early days and if current auto manufacturers aren’t careful, it’s going to do to them what Netflix and Redbox did to Blockbuster Video ten years ago.
Autonomous vehicles are a disruptive technology that’s going to cause an explosion in on-demand car services like Lyft and Uber because it will ultimately allow those companies to provide transportation at a much lower cost than our current model of privately owned or leased cars, without any significant extra inconvenience to the consumer. Right now we pay to have twenty-four hour access to our vehicles, but we only use them four percent of the time.5 By taking advantage of shared car usage and the fact that autonomous technology will cut Uber’s costs to a fraction of their current level, on-demand use of cars will explode in the decades after autonomous cars debut. Or at least it will explode everywhere other than low density population areas like the rural Midwest, where I grew up. Once Uber and its competitors can transport a consumer for only a fraction of the cost of privately owning a car, consumers will gradually stop buying cars. This will take decades, but once this transformation is complete, transportation will be a service rather than a product in America. We, and indeed, the rest of the world, will all be traveling around in a fleet of shared vehicles that we as consumers do not personally own and which could be called “The Mobility Cloud“.
Once consumers are using The Mobility Cloud for all their transportation needs, then they are no longer forced to buy the same enormous five-passenger vehicle that constitutes the dominant automotive architecture sold in the world today. This is good, because about seventy-five percent of all driving is done solo with nothing but a personal bag, so there’s really no need to be driving around in a five-thousand pound SUV. We all know consumers love their big cars, but once private car ownership is made obsolete by The Mobility Cloud, the social nuances that incent people to unnecessarily purchase and use such large vehicles will be substantially weakened. Consumers will start to choose vehicles suited exactly to the driving task at hand. And the driving task at hand is mostly driving alone with no cargo. This means a notional single passenger vehicle, something that’s a cross between an upright TRON light cycle and the passenger half of a Smart Car, is going to usurp the five passenger vehicle as the world’s dominant automotive architecture. This single passenger vehicle, available autonomously on demand and ten to thirty times more energy efficient than private cars or even public transportation, will be the most important piece of transportation hardware technology our society has created since the Model-T because it just might end terrorism from oil producing nations with populations that don’t care much for America’s global military presence, bring transportation to more than a billion people in the developing world that can’t currently afford it and if current automobile manufacturers aren’t careful, it could put many of them out of business.