While its always difficult to predict the market’s uptake of futuristic new tech, there is an optimistic consensus among some of the world’s top innovators and futurists. Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose cars come close to being fully driverless, suggests we will see true autonomous driving available to the public in the next few years. Quartz magazine’s Zack Kanter is equally optimistic, predicting that autonomous cars will be commonplace by 2025 and have a near monopoly by 2030.
Even if these predictions are half right, self-driving vehicles will have an impact that’s hard to ignore and wider than we might be imagining. Autonomous technology not only removes the driver from our own vehicle but from our hired cars and ride-sharing services as well, likely wiping out industries like taxi service entirely. A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9000 autonomous cars, ride-sharing services such as Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City and that passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. As you would imagine, ride-sharing companies are champing at the bit for driverless car services to become a possibility.
While many believed autonomous ride sharing was still a long way off, the COVID-19 pandemic saw progress toward this reality accelerate dramatically. Owing to concerns about ride-sharing drivers being viral super spreaders, US regulators fast-tracked approvals for Waymo’s driverless taxi service, and it hit the road years ahead of forecasting.
Waymo has long been at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology but other industry players aren’t far behind. In early 2021, Hyundai’s autonomous car spin-off, Motional, announced plans to release their own autonomous ridesharing service by 2023 and GM’s driverless car business Cruise won’t be far behind. And not to be forgotten, Tesla’s Elon Musk made a pledge in late 2020 to have one million driverless taxis on the road within a few years.
The resulting challenge for road safety regulators to adapt driving rules for an autonomous age is enormous. As an indication of the changes that lies ahead, the UK Department for Transport drafted new laws in early 2021 to make hands-free driving legal. The world of auto insurance will experience similar challenges, with KPMG estimating that as much as 80% of auto insurers' revenues could evaporate in coming decades. After all, if the unlikely event of a driverless car accident does occur, who is at fault?
Beyond this, the very design of our cities and suburbs is up for reconsideration in a world of driverless cars. Early indicators of what lies ahead include plans for a new car-free city in Shenzhen called Net City. This new development will be two million square metres and will feature offices, homes, parks and entertainment venues – but no roads for cars. It is a similar story in Tempe Arizona where America’s first car-free neighbourhood, named Culdesac, began construction in 2020.
While the rise of driverless cars already sets us up for age-defining transformation, another application of autonomous transport technology is set to transform more than just our roads and suburbs. Passenger drones represent a whole new era of disruption for our transport, travel and cities, and one that could shake up the very driverless technology that preceded it.
In mid-2018, Uber announced ambitious plans to start testing driverless passenger drones in key cities around the world with a plan to have a fully-fledged service ready for launch in 2023. Uber’s vision is to have these services cut commuting times in some of the world’s most congested cities by up to 80% - and all for the price of a typical Uber X ride.
Uber was not the first on the scene. Similar driverless drone experiments and test flights have been running in Dubai since early 2017 and a New Zealand-based company Kitty Hawk, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, is also making significant headway with an electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) vehicle. Called Heaviside, this new personal aircraft has a range of 100 miles and will be able to reach speeds of up to 180 mph. A February 2021 announcement that United Airlines will purchase $1 billion worth of electric ‘flying taxis’ to ferry passengers to hub airports reinforces the view that widespread personal drone transportation is not a case of if, but when.
At a smaller scale, COVID-19 saw significant developments in the use of drones for parcel delivery too. This was perhaps most clearly evidenced by the FAA decision in late 2020 to approve drone deliveries in heavily populated residential areas. Predictably, the decision was eagerly welcomed by operators including Win, UPS and Amazon. Industry commentators have suggested that the FAA’s surprise rule change may have also been aimed at helping with the rapid roll-out and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
With autonomous technology integration becoming increasingly viable, the next decade holds a transformation of our roads and airspace that will render inconveniences like traffic jams a thing of the past. This transformation of our transport is moving faster than we think, and we are quickly seeing the tech of tomorrow become the tech of today.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Kanter, Z. 2015, ‘Autonomous Cars Will Destroy Millions of Jobs and Reshape the US Economy by 2025’, Quartz, 13 May.
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 Wilmot, S. 2020, ‘Driverless Cars Are Coming, but Not Yet to Take Over’, The Wall Street Journal, 2 December.
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 Toussaint, K. 2019, ‘If you want to live in this new Arizona neighborhood, you can’t own a car’, FastCompany, 22 November.
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 Sider, A. 2021, ‘United Airlines to Buy 200 Flying Electric Taxis to Take You to the Airport’, The Wall Street Journal, 10 February.
 Levin, A. 2020, ‘Drone-Crowded Skies Get a Step Closer With U.S. Safety Rules’, Bloomberg, 28 December.