Last week we discussed how self-driving cars will shake up the automotive industry. This week, we investigate how these cars will change our everyday life as they enable us to change existing practices and develop new ones. Even though change may occur slowly at first, since fully autonomous vehicles are still a long way out, more people will be able to travel more, and they will find new destinations.

Our observations

  • The original automobile triggered people to travel more, to seek new destinations, and to develop new practices. Eventually, the value of those new or changed practices overvalued the costs of buying and the operation of theng cars.
  • Vehicles with increasing levels of autonomy are expected to increase road safety, make driving more comfortable, and ultimately allow drivers and passengers to take their eyes off the road and engage in more rewarding activities such as work or leisure.
  • To speed up the acceptance of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which will be hampered by so-called edge cases that are too difficult for the system to deal with, startup Phantom Auto aims to develop remote control systems through which a human driver can take over from a central facility.
  • Self-driving public transport could be used as a link in a multimodal trip well ahead of mass deployment of AVs for individual use. Since labor costs are a major factor in public transport, such unmanned (mini-)buses or pods could run at higher frequencies and fulfill a trip’s last mile without prohibitive stopover times.
  • Early fleets of AVs are likely to be deployed in private communities such as Florida’s The Villages or sites like airports. As with early electric cars, cities will compete to get the first fleets of AVs on their roads.
  • Volkswagen’s chief digital officer, Johann Jungwirth noted that people could save up to four years when they no longer have to drive their own cars.
  • AVs will not only carry passengers, but many services may also become autonomously mobile to serve us at our homes and offices. Mobile supermarkets may for instance see a come-back.

Connecting the dots

The arrival of ever smarter cars with varying degrees of autonomy will shake up the automotive industry, but it will also change everyday life to a great extent. That is, history teaches us that faster, cheaper, or more comfortable modes of transport lead us to travel more and to seek new destinations. Autonomous cars will most probably show similar effects.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined five progressive levels of autonomy, ranging from basic driver assistance features to full autonomy. On this scale, current commercial systems, e.g. Tesla’s Autopilot, classify as Level 2, but they already bring significant benefits to drivers, such as safety and comfort. These benefits will not change the mobility patterns radically, but they are likely to let more people drive more often. This will happen especially when legislators embrace the new technology and, for instance, allow younger drivers to acquire a driver’s license and stretch rules for the disabled.

Higher levels of autonomy assume that drivers can really take their eyes off the road and engage in other activities. In levels 3 and 4, drivers will still regularly be called upon to take over control, but in the meantime, they will be able to work, surf on the Internet, or watch a movie.

Estimates as to when these cars will be available range from two years (e.g. Tesla) to as much as 15 years. Before mass deployment, small series will probably be deployed in specific niches such as airports, gated communities, or very progressive cities. Such early applications may also include motorsports (e.g. Roborace) to demonstrate technological capabilities or consumer-oriented experiences (e.g. fun rides, re-enacting famous car chases from movies, the AV as a gaming device).

Full autonomy for the masses will bring radically new consumer practices. These will range from new in-car activities (e.g. media, shopping, work, sleeping) to new leisurely destinations. New communities may even form as people will choose their home location on the basis of other criteria than commuting time. Some may even choose to live some kind of a new nomadic life along the lines of the #vanlife trend. Ultimately, the meaning of these vehicles will change from mere cars to a wide variety of mobile units with distinct purposes that support altogether new practices.

Implications

  • Even lower levels of autonomy will increase road safety and lower thresholds for individuals to travel more and farther. This implies a further democratization of individual mobility that was already set in motion by the original automobile.
  • Most consider the autonomous vehicle as a mode of passenger transport, but we can also imagine a future in which all sorts of goods and services come to us, and we would not have to travel as much anymore. Such services could include automated food trucks, medical scanners, or DIY equipment. This would actually run counter to the historic trend of the ever-greater mobility of people, and it could even result in a situation of “hypomobility” instead of the hypermobility that AVs seem to result in at first glance.
  • Since all the autonomous vehicles are packed with all sorts of cameras and sensors, public space and life will be monitored almost continuously. This is bound to result in new forms of surveillance and the increase of the (public or private) control of everyday life.