A Vision Of A Driverless Future

Editor’s Note: Len Epp does customer development for Dashcube and previously worked as an analyst for Macquarie Group.

One of the things I find most surprising about discussions concerning the advent of automated vehicles is that, besides predictable worries about the disappearance of jobs that currently require human drivers, there is a serious, and boring, lack of imagination. Most people seem to think the world will be the same as it is now, except that our cars will be driving us around. In this scenario, the main difference between now and then is that we’ll have more spare time to look at screens, since we’ll just be sitting there, instead of focusing on the road and giving the finger to people who slow-turn left when there’s only a short time to catch the green arrow.

The truth is quite the opposite  — and a hard truth it is — for those invested deeply in the status quo. For one, it will mean an end to personal car ownership, except in rare circumstances. From the user’s end of things, this means you will just summon a car with your phone, and it will take you where you’re going. Since you won’t own the car, you won’t care what it looks like or what’s under the hood, which means that cars will become a lot more uniform in design, as well as cheaper, safer and far cleaner and more efficient. There will be no more corner gas stations and no more main street mechanics’ shops or oil change outfits, since everything will be managed, as it were, at a bulk rather than an individual level of service delivery.

From the owner’s end of things, fleets of cars will be owned by companies. This doesn’t just mean automated Uber. To pick just one example, companies like Walmart will almost certainly let their robot cars drive you to and from their stores for free, as will their competitors. Assuming huge efficiency gains are met, it’s even possible that municipalities will get in the game, and cars will eventually be a part of public transportation. And that’s just the start.

But here’s the thing no one seems to be talking about: When cars and trucks are all automated and talking to each other to coordinate their movements, it will open up the possibility for many new types of moving robots and services to emerge, including “vehicles” that have no space for humans whatsoever. In the following sections I’ll set out just a few of the possibilities.

Mobile retail

In the automated vehicle future, “mobile retail” won’t mean buying things from your phone: it will mean buying things from stores on wheels. Just to pick a familiar starting point, imagine that vending machines could zoom around on the roads on their own. An entire industry will emerge based on roving algorithms that let vending machines for specific products be in the right place at the right time to make a sale.

Heading to the park on an especially hot day? There will be robots there roving around selling cold drinks. Is it unexpectedly cold? While you’re waiting at the (driverless) bus stop, there will be a hot chocolate vehicle right there ready for you. Ice cream trucks will be back, too, of course, roving the neighborhoods, with nothing but treats inside.

Robot mail carriers and other local services

Post offices may not have much of a future, at least as services distinct from the general industry of getting of things from A to B, but again it’s easier to explain a major change when you start from something familiar, so here goes.

Once cars are driverless, there will be robot vehicles delivering your mail and other packages right to your door when you summon them. Packages (and even letters, until governments finally figure out how to go paperless) will be distributed to local warehouses and loaded up onto trucks that will roam or rest in your neighborhood until you call them to say you’re ready for delivery. Then, the vehicle will just roll up to your door, ping you to let you know it’s there, and have your package ready for you. They might even deposit them on your doorstep in some kind of generic local shipping container.

Garbage and recycling vehicles (again, with no humans inside) will also roam around, coming when you need them, which means no more (or far less) garbage sitting in bags or bins on the streets. Sorry, raccoons.

Presumably, especially where crowds are gathered, there will also be health care robots whizzing about, ready with their cameras, first aid kits, advice, and direct lines to emergency services if anything unfortunate happens.

There will be robots selling tickets to concerts and sports games competing right outside the venue with scalpers  —  there may even be robot scalpers there, too. Since vehicles might get a lot wider as parking on the street completely disappears, we might even see the design of robot gyms or yoga studios that drive right up to your door and let you go inside and work out, while the gym roams around picking other members up and dropping them off when they’re done. (Okay, this example is both a little out there, and involves putting people inside the vehicles, but the point is that not all vehicles will exist for the purpose of transporting people around, but rather providing another type of service.)

This basic theme will extend to all sorts of other services. Even traffic cones and street signs might end up being able to move around, controlled centrally or even following algorithms of their own.

Speaking of municipal services, the robot cops we first encounter will not be shaped or in any way intended to move and manipulate things like humans do. Rather, they will be more like R2D2: multipurpose, smart tools on wheels. This may strike you as a bad thing, but anyone who ever has ever been mugged will be very happy to see a little robocop come speeding around the corner, lights blaring and camera flashing. Still, we all need to get ready for a whole new privacy debate, as roving cops patrol our streets recording video, scanning for trouble, and faces, cheaply, safely, but also ubiquitously.

Automated transportation of goods

Long before Elon Musk comes to terms with the fact that the hyperloop is a good system for transporting goods, but a terrible system for transporting people, automated vehicles purpose-built for transporting goods will be trucking safely along the existing road and highway infrastructure we have already built, with no need for coffee or truck stops.

There may be big truck-like things that travel in convoys, but there will also be transportation vehicles that function essentially like interchangeable, road-based shipping containers, with no dedicated space for a person. Indeed, someone might even develop something like container “skates” that you just roll a container onto as soon as it comes off a cargo ship, or out of a factory, helping the thing zoom along roads to its programmed destination.

A whole new startup ecosystem

The driverless future will transform both the literal landscape and the startup landscape. Just like the iPhone created a whole new ecosystem for startups with the App Store, when the things on our roads can be automated, the street will represent an entirely new platform for the delivery of goods and services. Of course this change will be hard. So was the change to driving horseless carriages in the first place. But it will also bring enormous opportunities on a number of levels.

Let’s just hope this driverless future can also ameliorate some of the catastrophic damage we’ve done to ourselves as a species, and our planet more broadly, for the sake of the car  — damage so ubiquitous, we treat roads like natural features, instead of the [deliberate bitumen spills they really are.