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What will a driverless future actually look like?

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There is a growing consensus that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will soon be a reality. The debate today centers not on whether, but how soon, AVs will be commonplace on our roads. But for all the buzz surrounding AVs, many details about what a driverless future will look like remain unclear.

Which business models will work best for the commercialization of AVs? Which AV usage models will be most appealing for consumers? Which companies are best positioned to win in this new market?

These are big questions, and no certain answers can be given at this stage. Nonetheless, it is valuable to reflect, in a concrete way, on how this transformative technology might develop. This article will present some conjectures.

The end of private car ownership?

At a high level, two possible paradigms seem most likely for how society will use AVs. The first is private AV ownership. Under this model, individuals or families would continue to own their own vehicles and use them to get around. As the cars would be self-driving, exciting new possibilities exist for their use.

Individuals could be more productive while in transit. Children, the handicapped, the elderly and others not previously able to drive themselves could commute alone. People could earn supplemental income by sending their cars, when otherwise not in use, to transport other people or goods (a future version of on-demand services like Uber or Instacart).

This option would, in a way, be the closest thing to a continuation of the current status quo. Little would have to change about carmakers’ core business models: individual consumers would still make purchasing decisions and would own and operate their own vehicles.

Many different types of companies will succeed in and add value to the autonomous vehicle space in different ways.

The second paradigm for AV use represents a more radical reconceptualization of how people get around in society. Under this model, a shared fleet of autonomous vehicles would exist that individuals could summon on demand to get from Point A to Point B. After dropping off one passenger, the vehicle could then pick up and transport the next passenger. Individuals would have no need to own their own cars; rather, they would receive mobility “as a service.”

There are many details about a “mobility as a service” model that are intriguing to consider. The most straightforward version of this model is one in which individuals summon AVs on a one-off basis when they need to get somewhere, paying per ride or per mile — effectively, a driverless version of how Uber or Lyft work today.

It is also possible, however, to imagine the development of more sophisticated subscription models. Under a subscription model, individuals would pay a flat fee on a monthly or annual basis for unlimited access to a given fleet of vehicles, to be used whenever they need a ride — loosely analogous to a SaaS model.

One interesting question is the amount of segmentation that would develop among subscription offerings. It seems likely that, as with most other consumer products, a wide range of AV subscription types would become available that offer different benefits and features depending on price. These differently priced subscription offerings could vary in terms of the types of vehicles in the fleet, the average required wait time for a ride, the electronics and other features available inside the vehicles and so forth.

The issue of segmentation closely ties to the equally important question of which player or players would own and operate these AV fleets. One possibility is that auto manufacturers — at least those that choose to enter the AV market — could offer subscriptions to fleets consisting entirely of their vehicles. Thus, as an example, one could choose to subscribe to Ford’s AV fleet in a given city for a certain rate, or alternatively to pay more to subscribe to Mercedes’ fleet.

Alternatively, these shared AV fleets might be operated not by the carmakers themselves but rather by fleet providers that aggregate various makes of vehicles. To create a profitable role for themselves in the market, these providers would have to add value to the experience in some way beyond vehicle manufacture (e.g. sophisticated mapping or passenger-matching algorithms). One could speculate that Uber, which recently has invested heavily in autonomous technology, envisions itself playing a role along these lines.

One last issue worth contemplating regarding future AV use is the optimal size and capacity of vehicles. The majority of drives in the U.S. today are solo trips, meaning that vehicle space is significantly underutilized and fuel usage is needlessly high. It is statistically rare that all five seats in a standard sedan (much less all eight seats in an SUV) are in use.

Autonomous vehicles’ impact on the way we live will be nothing short of transformative.

Given this, it is plausible to imagine single-occupancy pods making up a significant portion of future AV fleets — thus increasing fuel efficiency, economizing on materials costs and taking up less space on roads. Perhaps vehicles with a wide range of different capacities (from single-occupancy pods all the way to small buses that can fit 20 or 30 people) will all exist on the road, in proportion to their demand, and customers can indicate their desired vehicle size when summoning a car.

Winner take all?

In speculating about these possible AV business and usage models, it is important to keep in mind that this market will not necessarily be “winner take all.” It is altogether possible that more than one of these models — and others that have not yet even been imagined — will all coexist profitably in the market.

One need look no further than the current transportation market for an instructive analogy. Today, people get around in their daily lives in many different ways. Some people own their own cars. Some people rent cars when they need them (either through traditional car rental companies or newer models like Zipcar). Some people get everywhere through ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. Some people use public transportation or simply walk. People commonly switch from one of these solutions to another over the course of their lives depending on life’s changing circumstances.

The same will likely be true in the driverless future of tomorrow. For instance, shared fleet models may become prevalent, rendering the concept of private car ownership obsolete for many. At the same time, those who prefer may continue to own and operate their own AVs. Personal transportation is and will continue to be a massive market. There is room for many different models and companies to thrive, and it is unlikely that any one approach will win outright.

On a similar but broader note, many different types of companies will succeed in and add value to the autonomous vehicle space in different ways. It is highly unlikely that any one company will own the entire end-to-end AV experience (though if any company were to try, a plausible candidate would be Apple and its mysterious Project Titan). Instead, the AV experience is likely to be modularized across many different players.

For instance, profitable businesses will be built around producing: LIDAR sensors and other physical components for the vehicles; cybersecurity software to keep connected cars safe; high-performance computing chips to power the cars’ decision-making processes; consumer electronics for the cars’ interiors; mapping and geolocation software to enable the car to navigate; and much more. In this sense, AVs should be thought of not as a single new product but rather as an entirely new ecosystem in the economy.

Time will tell

The possibilities laid out above are, of course, speculative. As AVs continue to develop in the coming years, there will be many technology, product and business model advances that surprise us all. One way or another, autonomous vehicles’ impact on the way we live will be nothing short of transformative. It will be an exciting ride.

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