If you were traveling between Boston and Washington, DC, and had the choice of either flying or riding in a driverless car, which would you choose?

Under good conditions this is an 8.5-hour drive vs. 4-5 hours flying – driving to the airport, wading through security, boarding the flight, landing, and commuting to your destination when you arrive.

Keep in mind that the first wave of driverless vehicles will be luxury vehicles that allow you to kick back, listen to music, have a cup of coffee, stop wherever you need to along the way, stay productive with connections to the Internet, make phone calls, and even watch a movie or two, for roughly the same price.

If you think this vision is far off, think again. Over the next 10 years we will see the first wave of autonomous vehicles hit the roads, with some of the first inroads made with vehicles that deliver packages, groceries, and fast-mail envelopes.

Here are a few thoughts on how this industry will develop.

Driverless concept vehicle

The Complexities of Going Driverless

Over the past few nights we hosted a couple mastermind groups at the DaVinci Institute to discus how the rollout of driverless cars will begin to disrupt life, as we know it, both in the U.S. and around the world. I truly appreciate everyone’s input, as this is a complicated subject with multiple driving forces, each with a number of “human” variables that will either speed or slow the introduction of this technology.

But we all agreed, nothing will stop it

While the current technology is good enough to navigate roadways and recognize obstacles, it will need some refinement before it’s human-safe, and to push economic viability, the component costs will need to come down.

Driverless technology will initially require a driver, and it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did. First as an expensive option for luxury cars, but eventually it will become a safety feature required by the government.

The greatest benefits of this kind of automation won’t be realized until the driver’s hands are off the wheel. With over 2 million people are involved in car accidents every year in the U.S., it won’t take long for legislators to be convinced that driverless cars are a safer option.

The privilege of driving is about to be redefined.

Many aspects of going driverless are overwhelmingly positive, such as saving lives and giving additional years of mobility to an aging senior population. However, it will also be a very disruptive technology.

At the same time, it will be destroying countless jobs – truck drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, limo drivers, traffic cops, parking lot attendants, ambulance drivers, first responders, doctors, and nurses will all see their careers impacted.

But before we get into the “good vs. evil” technology debate, let’s look at why this will happen so quickly.

Inside the driverless Personal Rapid Transport vehicle at Heathrow Airport

The Roots of the Driverless Movement

The idea of self-driving cars is almost as old as the car itself. GM had visions of going driverless in its exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

  • In 1959, Walt Disney unveiled his driverless monorail at Disneyland, originally envisioned as a practical form of public transport for the future. However, the monorail came about during a time when America’s love affair with the automobile was growing, and even though he offered to pay for a monorail to ease the growing traffic congestion in Los Angeles, his technology never made it past the walls of the Disney’s theme parks.
  • In 2004 and 2005 DARPA sponsored the “Grand Challenge,” a competition to produce a driverless vehicle that could pilot itself 132 miles through the Nevada desert with no human intervention. The Stanford team won that competition in 2005 with their modified Volkswagen Touareg named “Stanley.”
  • Building on their success, in 2007 DARPA sponsored the next iteration, the “Urban Challenge,” which was won by the Carnegie Mellon team.
  • In 2008, John Deere introduced a steering assist option for their tractors, capable of turning, shifting gears and seeing through darkness and dust. The tractors were able to follow a row with sub-inch precision in the moonlight, raising and lowering the equipment to match the terrain, at the same time, saving thousands of hours and countless dollars in the process.
  • In 2008, Google launched their driverless car team. The group was headed up by Sebastian Thrun, the entrepreneurial Stanford professor who won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, and also co-creator of the Google’s Street View project. So far, their self-driving car fleet has already racked up over 200,000 driverless miles on highways. Google reports these cars have required intervention by a human co-pilot only about once every 1,000 miles and the goal is to reduce this rate to once in 1,000,000 miles.
  • In 2009, Heathrow Airport introduced their Personal Rapid Transport system consisting of 21 electric shuttles on a two-and-a-half mile pathway
  • In 2010 VisLab ran VIAC (VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge), a 13,000 km test run of autonomous vehicles. In this competition, 4 driverless electric vans successfully drove from Italy to China, arriving at the Shanghai Expo on October 28, 2010. This was the first intercontinental trip ever completed by an autonomous vehicle.
  • In 2010, Volkswagen sent a driverless Audi TTS to the top of Pike’s Peak at close to race speeds.
  • In 2011 the U.S. Military spent $4.8 billion on flying drones. This has been a rapidly growing budget item in the military’s arsenal. With this kind of focused spending, drone technology has improved dramatically over the past decade, but as a technology, the future for drones will go far beyond military uses.
  • In 2011, with Google lobbying in the background, the Nevada Legislature passed a law to authorize the use of autonomous vehicles, making it the first state where driverless vehicles can be legally operated on public roads.

These represent just a few of the advances, to date, that are driving this technology forward.

Mercedes concept vehicle

Stepping into Our Driverless Future

Recent advances in computing power and networking technologies are improving the viability of both the technology and economics on a daily basis. Today’s technology uses GPS to recognize where the cars are on the road. Cameras, lasers, and radar help them keep their distance from other cars and recognize objects like pedestrians. Superfast processors weave all the inputs together, allowing cars to react quickly.

Over time, data spidering systems, like those used by search engines, will be used to log details of every road in the country in real time, report potholes, cracks, or other dangerous conditions immediately when they occur, and build an information highway to serve as the backbone for our real highways.

Here are a few of the companies pushing this technology forward:

  • Mercedes is equipping its 2013 model S-Class cars with a system that can drive autonomously through city traffic at speeds up to 25 m.p.h.
  • Buyers of European luxury cars are already choosing from a menu of advanced options. For example, for $1,350, people who purchase BMW’s 535i xDrive sedan in the United States can opt for a “driver assistance package” that includes radar to detect vehicles in the car’s blind spot. For another $2,600, BMW will install “night vision with pedestrian detection,” which uses a forward-facing infrared camera to spot people in the road.
  • Many car companies including General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, and Volvo have begun early testing of driverless car systems.
  • General Motors has stated that they will have a driverless model ready for final testing by 2015, going on sale officially in 2018.

Several automakers already sell cars with adaptive cruise controls that automatically applies the brakes if traffic slows. BMW plans to extend that idea in its upcoming i3 series of electric cars, whose traffic-jam feature will let the car accelerate, decelerate, and steer by itself at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour—as long as the driver leaves a hand on the wheel.

According to New York’s ABI Research, the market for “advanced driver assistance” technologies was $10 billion in 2011, but will grow to a staggering $130 billion by 2016.

Driverless car network

Cars that Talk to Each Other

A major challenge for driverless roadways is for vehicles to safely and reliably communicate with one another. That’s where the Google operating system comes into play.

Hidden behind the hype of this technology is Google’s plan to come up with an Android-like operating system for all future driverless cars.

Regardless of whether its Google or someone else, creating communication standards and protocols will be the key to making this all work.

That requires getting all the automakers and regulatory agencies to agree on a standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun studying various technologies for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and plans to make a decision by 2013. They project intervehicle communications alone could reduce up to 80 percent of vehicle crashes involving non-impaired drivers.

LIT Motor’s new one-person commuter vehicle

Future Power Systems

People tend not to care about the power systems driving vehicles that they don’t own. As an example, few people pay attention to fuel efficiency of the airplane they’re flying in. They only care that they arrive on time.

This, combined with cost, range, and efficiency factors will mean that the first wave of driverless vehicles will likely be powered with old-fashioned gas engines.

However, electric vehicles using drive-by-wire technology will have many advantages over time. Rapid charging stations, silent engines, and the simple act of a vehicle recharging itself as opposed to the dangers of one that has to “refuel” itself will win over vehicle buyers in the future.

Many other power systems will be experimented with including everything from wireless power, to fuel cells, to natural gas, to biofuels. But in the end, fuel efficiency will prevail.

Google’s driverless car

The Promise of Going Driverless

According to the Center for Disease Control, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among the 5-34 age group in the U.S. More than 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers were treated in emergency departments as the result of being injured in motor vehicle crashes last year.

The lifetime costs of crash-related deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers are over $70 billion annually.

Consider the following problems that would go away:

  • There were more than 5.5 million car accidents last year in the United States. Nearly 31,000 were fatal, and more than 2 million people were injured.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children and teenagers.
  • At any given moment, 812,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a handheld cell phone in the U.S.
  • An average of four children ages 14 and under are killed every day in auto accidents. Nearly 500 are injured daily.
  • While statistics continue to improve, 32 percent of fatal accidents involved alcohol-impaired drivers.

In addition to the known health and accident related issues, there is a tremendous amount of stress involved in driving.

People are not productive when they are driving and the frenetic atmosphere of high traffic situations leaves most commuters drained at the end of a day.

All of these problems will eventually go away.

Driverless taxi

The Downside of this Technology

At the same time, driverless cars will dramatically affect employment around the world.

  • Over time over 232,000 taxi and limo drivers in the U.S. will lose their jobs.
  • Over 647,000 bus drivers will be out of work.
  • Over 125,000 truck drivers will be looking for new careers.
  • Other jobs affected will include jobs at gas stations, parking lots, car washes, traffic cops, traffic courts, doctors, nurses, pizza delivery, mail delivery, FedEx and UPS jobs, as well as vehicle manufacturing positions.

In the future, the number of vehicles sold will begin to decline.

Inside a future car

Final Thoughts

The reason driverless cars will prove to be so disruptive for the automobile industry is that it will enable on-demand transportation services to replace the need for individual car ownership. Rather than having to conform to the route and timing of today’s mass transit systems, people will simply be able to request a vehicle through their smartphones whenever they need it, and a driverless vehicle will show up, on-demand, and take them to wherever they desire to go.

An on-demand transportation system will not significantly reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road at peak times, but will be better at matching the size of the vehicle with the number of people traveling. Since the vehicles will be in continuous operation, there will be significantly less need for parking spaces.

To be sure, this is a very complicated topic. Many other countries will be competing with the U.S. to become global leaders in this multi-pronged emerging industry.

With Google pushing the lobbying effort in Las Vegas, look for them to become the initial showcase for the world.

The military will likely find unusual uses in for these vehicles that have few civilian applications.

The coming years will see the public first embracing the technology and at the same time disdaining the tumultuous effects its having.

In the end, we will be driving towards a far safer and more resilient society, but we’ll be traveling down some very bumpy roads along the way.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

19 Responses to “Driverless Cars: A Driving Force Coming to a Future Near You”

Comments List

  1. Lee Curkendall

    Once again, an interesting topic thoroughly reviewed by Tom. As far as the "downside" to the new technology, I'm hopeful that most readers will know from history that any good new technology causes a large (and usually unpopular) reaction from those with a dog-in-the-fight for the existing technology. When the first automated weaving looms replaced hand-knitters, it was very disruptive (and not good at all for those who only knew how to knit). But, in the long run, suits and sweaters were so much cheaper that the industry employed even more people. A couple of questions: 1) What about driving in snowstorms? If the vehicle gets stuck, does it try to rock itself out of the snow? Can a human take over set things right? 2) What about the (I hope rare) case of a pedestrian hit-and-run? Who gets ticketed? :) Lee
    • admin

      Lee, Thanks for your comments. As for the bad weather conditions that could sideline a car, I'm not sure I have a good answer yet. Driverless cars would have sensors to warn you in advance when conditions are getting bad, but some snowstorms happen without much warning. Most likely the driverless car would signal for a driverless snowplow to come and dig it out. To answer your second question, with the increased sensor capability built-in to every car, I'm not sure hit-and-runs would even be possible. At least you would have great difficulty remaining anonymous. Certainly the driverless car could call for a driverless ambulance and driverless tow truck to clean up the mess. There will be many difficult use cases like this that test the design capabilities of car companies. It will be up to the engineers to come up with elegant solutions that can be efficiently implemented. This will not happen over night. Tom,
    • admin

      Good thinking Alan. It could be an entirely mobile storefront that makes and delivers all of it's pizzas on the fly. When it runs low on supplies, it could even go to the warehouse and reload without bothering the owners. Tom
  2. Raymond

    Excellent article! I am an electrical and mechanical engineer undergraduate and nothing has spiked my interest like autonomous driving. Does anyone know of a good path to get a job at a company that is making autonomous their top priority?
    • admin

      Raymond, Good question. The large auto manufacturers will likely dominate the driverless car market, but there are plenty of spaces for small startups to get a foot in the door. I would suggest looking at delivery drone companies - vehicles that deliver groceries and text the recipients when they arrive, or drones for overnight delivery packs that will eventually get bought up by FedEx or UPS. You may also want to consider startups that are designing the boxes that delivered products will be stored in. As an example, if a drone delivered groceries in the middle of the night, what kind of receptacle would they be placed in? The docking station handoff between a driverless delivery drone and the receptacle is crucial, requiring a tremendous amount of visionary engineering. As a third option, you might consider looking into the flying drone market. Most municipalities will start using the flying drones to monitor traffic, inspect maintenance issues like potholes and graffiti, and also as emergency responder vehicles to instantly "get eyes on" an accident, fire, or other type of situation. The good news is there will be tremendous need for your talent in the future. Your next step will be in doing the legwork to find a good match for you. Tom
  3. Dan

    Great article. There should be more talk about this transportation revolution, as the technology is here and the benefits are great. Many big money industries would be disrupted or become obsolete, and they may use scare tactics to prevent/delay it from happening. As with any new invention, business needs to learn to adapt, rather than try to prevent change. With deep pockets and credibility, Google should promote the benefits and prove it's safe beyond a doubt. Another huge benefit is an almost end to traffic congestion, where a driverless car would eliminate accidents, bottlenecks and traffic signal waits.
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    Great writing Tom. For me, I think car rental companies are the first to sell the technology, just like they led GPS adoption. Business people are the largest segment of car rentals, and the most common use is back and forth to the airport to and from the client or corporate site. And business people are not very price sensitive. Today, the choices are rent a car at say $45/day or a cab at say $55/one-way trip ($110 round trip). The trade offs between a rental and a cab are similar to the trade offs for self-drive or robot-drive cars. Today, a rental car is cheaper, but I lose productivity and time by going to the rental car lot and by driving myself. While the cab picks me up directly, and I can be productive working during the trip. If a robotic car rents at say $90/day, it's still less expensive than a cab, with all the benefits of a cab, and without some of the annoyances of a cab (a dirty cab, the smell of smoke, a recent immigrate with weak English skills, city-street ignorance, poor driving skills, etc.) If the rental car is in service for 200 days a year, that's $9,000 additional revenue to cover the robotic features costs. It's a big win for the car rental business and for the business traveler. Not so great for the taxi business. Taxi companies will respond to the competition by buying robotic cars and laying off drivers. Then the line between car rentals and cab services will blur. Won't some car rental companies move into the on-demand market? Great stuff. And at some point, it doesn't make any sense to own a car, does it?
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>RS Amblee</a>

    Great article Tom. Here is my contribution to this brain storming session. First of all, when such a technology comes into market, there will be both job losses and job creation happening simultaneously. Though job losses will be rampant, job creation will also be significant. Where are jobs created? Rental companies or Taxi companies that adapt robot-cars, need massive infrastructure to manage and monitor them. Cars though driverless, will have to be monitored and maintained. This requires a lot of skilled workers from computer operators, programmers, hardware consultants etc., The severity of job losses will depend on how quickly will these cab drives get retrained and get back to work. At the same time, there is lingering threat of outsourcing, those jobs could be outsourced as monitoring can be done remotely. There will be greater pressure on schools and colleges. The second big impact will be in real estate. After taking driving hassle off the hands, and when people begin to like long commutes, the real estate market will further become affordable as people don't mind traveling another 10min or 20min or so, for bigger and cheaper houses, rather than smaller and expensive homes closer to city. No matter what, both of these effects will move us towards a smarter future. Here is the link to my book: -RS Amblee
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>driving lessons in gloucester</a>

    Wow this is amazing I wonder how long it will be before we all have driver less cars.It will for sure put driving instructors out of a job.
  7. Dee

    Great article, very interesting to read. The statistics on driver impairment and accidents is motivational to move to controlled vehicles. I've enjoy thinking about future vehicles, and how smart systems could control a small electric vehicles like the LIT one shown. From someone's door to their close by destination on roads, or where further away / in congested areas, the car could navigate to a 'station' where is seamlessly links onto a light rail concept (magnetic, or similar 'track' or space) that the cars could go at high speeds, close by each other or even docked together, until they reach a destination 'station' and rejoin smaller roads. I also feel ownership will drop, but with any public versus private spaces, the average journey time, cleanliness and style of interior would influence some people to own. I love the idea of products being shipped as discussed in this article. Perhaps underground tunnels from ports in major cities could have electronic pallet movers/trains to get large amounts of goods to manufacturing bases, as well as to city destinations without taking up road space. They also operate 24/7. Tracking would be immediate and accurate. Thanks for the thought provoking site! Dee.
  8. Interstellar Bill

    Once all cars are networked there'd be no more traffic jams. Convoys would move unimpeded across town. Only unnetworked pedestrians would need traffic signals. One-person vehicles would become part of the mix. Cities bereft of lucrative traffic-ticket revenue would have to resort to a tax on robots. As for snow, the robot cars could have their human owners switch out their wheels for treads, and put heaters on their camera lenses.
  9. orange county swinehart

    This piece is brilliant! The emerging car industry needs more passionate writers like you who aren't afraid to say what they believe. The future will surely make liars of us all, but you've definitely got a gift.
  10. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Grognor</a>

    I hope they come as fast as possible.
  11. Lucas Dodds

    I understand some peoples reluctance to trust a machine with their lives, but as the technology progressed far enough I think this would be a really cool concept. Hopefully, it will only be a matter of time before other car manufacturers start to incorporate the technology in to their models.
  12. Frunobulax718

    So the way I see it, millions of professional drivers will lose their jobs (along with ancillary services, like the above-mentioned driving instructor), while insurance company CEOs clean up as a result of not paying out $70 billion per year. The rich get richer, etc. We are at the stage now in human development where socially disruptive technological growth is occuring at a rate where the new replacement careers are not keeping pace with careers that are lost. By the time one re-trains oneself for a new career, that career is lost already. An out-of-work taxi driver can take out loans for a robot car repair certification, only to find out that by the time the multi-year coursework is complete, the knowledge is obsolete and cars have gone through another major transformation. In a manner that is eerily similar to climate change, major modifications to the global environment are happening so quickly that a huge mass of humanity will be unable to successfully adapt, and thus, they will impacted in a way that threatens significant pain and upheaval to billions. [In a world where ice caps melt over the course of a few dozen centuries, people would be able to slowly retreat from the marine shores; but in one where it happens in just a couple of generations, we will have a massive refugee problem. The same goes for the rapidity of technological upheaval.] The number I keep hearing about the job loss from driverless cars is around 4 million over the next ten years. That is a staggering amount of unemployment. While the aerial version of this disruptive technology -- drones -- is getting most of the media coverage these days (rather than driverless cars), it is becoming more apparent that the generalized concepts of robotics, Big Data and cloud computing are ganging up to shred hundreds, if not thousands, of long standing institutions that our society uses as a foundation. The biggest of these are governments (at all levels) and the global economy. Techno-change is as big a threat to the human race as climte change. If not more so, because it is likely that it cannot be managed or controlled by anything short of an authoritarian 'Dark Ages' period of the kind that usually follows the collapse of a great power.
  13. Hebe Garrett

    i think this is a super cool idea but is this as big as they will get as for bigger families like mine need to travel together as well as travel in the same car, thanks!
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Hebe, Driverless vehicles will come in all shapes and sizes, including driverless buses, trucks, trolleys,and even mail trucks. Still a ways down the road, but driverless features offer too many advantages to be ignored. Thomas Frey

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