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10 shocking predictions about driverless cars

Driverless disruption – brace yourselves, it could be bumpy ride


(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. Read part two here.)

The night before my talk for the Texas Transportation Forum in Austin, Texas, my wife and I were involved in a car accident. Since Uber and Lyft no longer operate in Austin, we were in the back of a Ride Austin vehicle.

With an oncoming car that erroneously turned in front of us at an intersection, and a few panic-filled seconds of stomping on brakes and bracing for impact, we ended up in a relatively low-impact head-on collision in which no one was seriously injured.

It occurred to me that many cars on the road today are designed around mitigating damage. Everything from seatbelts, to airbags, child car seats, bumpers and headlights are designed to increase safety and reduce the cost and liability of car accidents.

The next logical question is, how much of this goes away as we enter into the driverless car era?

Sure, it’ll be a messy transition, and we will only see a relatively small amount of change while there are still human drivers on the roads. But once we develop fully automated transportation systems, will we still need all these safety features?

There's a lengthy list of predictions about the coming driverless era, which inevitably will be followed by fully autonomous vehicles. Naturally this will require a level of trust in the technology that is still a ways off. However, the economic drivers behind rapid adoption are hard to ignore.

As with all predictions, there are a number of variables that could cause a far different outcome. For this reason, the true value of a prediction is in drawing your attention to the situation, and you reaching your own conclusions.   

10 Shocking Predictions

1.  We will go through cars like water

I’ve been doing some math on driverless cars and came to the startling conclusion that autonomous cars will wear out in as little as nine to ten months.

Yes, car speeds will be slower in the beginning, but within 10 years speeds will increase and cars begin to average 60 to 70 m.p.h. on open freeways. A single car could easily average 1,000 miles a day; and over a 10-month period, a car could travel as much as 300,000 miles.

Cars today are only in use 4 percent of the day – less than an hour. An electric autonomous vehicle could operate as much as 20 hours a day, or 21 times as much as the average car.

For an electric autonomous vehicle operating 24/7, that still leaves plenty of time for recharging, cleaning and maintenance.

It’s too early to know what the actual life expectancy of these vehicles will be, but it’s a safe assumption that it will be far less than the 11.5 years cars average today.

2.  1 : 30

The years 2028 through 2030 will be the peak messiness for the driverless car revolution. The number of autonomous vehicles will grow rapidly, but they will be intermingled with traditional driver-required cars.

Drivers bring with them a hard-to-quantify human variable, and that’s what makes driving today such problem-riddled experience.

There are roughly 258 million registered cars in the U.S. and replacing them will be a long, drawn-out process. But here’s what most people don’t understand. One autonomous vehicle that can be summoned from a local fleet will replace 30 traditional cars.

For a city of 2 million people, a fleet of 30,000 autonomous vehicles will displace 50 percent of peak commuter traffic.

During off-peak times, 30,000 autonomous vehicles will handle virtually all other transportation needs.

3.  Roughly 4 million autonomous cars will replace 50 percent of commuter traffic in the U.S.

With roughly 250 million people in the U.S. living in urban communities, 3.75 million autonomous vehicles will handle 50 percent of peak commuters.

That means 4 million autonomous vehicles will replace our need for half of all cars, or roughly 129 million vehicles.

With a projected sale of 17 million to 18 million new vehicles annually in the country, a fleet of even 1 million autonomous vehicles will make a serious dent in traditional car sales.

4.  Cars will come in fleets

The present assumption is major fleet owners will dominate the autonomous car market and that their focus will be on vehicle costs, repair records, maintenance, cleaning expenses and operational efficiencies.

In a competitive consumer market, they will also have to pay close attention to comfort, convenience and the overall user experience.

AI-driven fleet management systems will be tasked with ensuring cars are in the right place at the right time to meet user demand. This fleet management software will take years of operational know-how to make it work efficiently.

5.  It’s electric!

As battery life improves and recharging stations become more automated, the demand for electric vehicles will jump exponentially. However, large fleet owners will only choose electric cars if they are easier to maintain, more reliable and cost efficient.

6.  Range will exceed 1,000 miles per charge by 2027

Battery range for electric vehicles is improving. Though Elon Musk has predicted a 600-mile range for Tesla cars in 2017, the latest models only get about half of that.

Once autonomous vehicles hit the road, fleet owners will demand greater distance capabilities, as range will become a primary purchase consideration.

For this reason, it seems reasonable that electric vehicles will routinely exceed 1,000 miles on a single charge within 10 years.

7.  The volume will be turned down

The shift to electric vehicles will dramatically change the noise level of a dense metropolis. This cannot be overstated. Rumbling engines, smelly exhaust clouds, and loud revving noises will all fade into distant memories.

8.  No more family road trips

Since 76 percent of cars on the road only have one person inside, and since one-person vehicles will be cheaper, over 80 percent of autonomous fleets will be designed around single passenger occupancy.

9. Sales taxes will shrink dramatically

Roughly 40 percent of state and local sales tax comes from auto sales. With the current rules, all cars in a fleet will be exempt from sales tax. It seems likely that new taxes will be created to replace lost revenues.

10. Goodbye retail

More than 10 percent of today’s retail businesses are connected with cars. As personal ownership of cars begins to shrink, we will see a rapid decline in gas stations, car washes, mechanics and detail shops, tire stores, brake stops, emissions testing facilities, rental car agencies and auto insurance offices. Dealerships themselves will disappear as well.

Don't miss 15 more Futurist forecasts on driverless cars coming up in ColoradoBiz Exclusives.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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