From the Wright Brothers to Elon Musk, technological advances have always sparked curiosities in transportation. As a society, we have always been interested in how to move human beings and goods longer distances in shorter amounts of time. Technology has always allowed for these interests to turn into actions, as our modes of transportation have consistently evolved and improved. All signs seem to be pointing at self-driving cars as the next frontier for personal transportation. These prototypes and discussion around them have been one of the most prominent features at all high-profile technology conventions around the world. With SXSW ’15 underway, the festivities in Austin, TX are certainly no different.
On Sunday, Doug Newcomb, President of the C3 Group, spoke about his expectations for autonomous cars. Previously, Newcomb had said that he expects that we’ll see fully autonomous vehicles on the road within five-to-ten years. What’s interesting is that there are investors and innovators from different industries hoping to push forward the advancement of autonomous vehicles. Auto manufacturers are, quite obviously to many, working towards this, but Google has a relatively long past with self-driving car prototypes and Apple is rumored to be designing their own car.
So in a sense, Newcomb said, this is nothing new. But a few circumstances seem to be pushing the innovation along to the point where the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to become visible. Firstly, he said, there is currently an increased emphasis on “time well spent”. Many consumers across the United States have very wasteful, long commute times. Autonomous vehicles could be a way to cut down on travel times or allow folks to be productive during their commutes. Secondly, there are compelling benefits that autonomous vehicles bring to consumers, cities, and society. In an ideal world, autonomous vehicles will increase safety and result in fewer traffic-related fatalities. Self-driving cars can also fit more closely on roads, which can have a big effect on how roads, parking lots, and garages are designed.
Newcomb’s five-to-ten year timeline is based on a few things. The large window allows for some slowing due to regulation, which will certainly be a big part of the conversation and ultimate adoption. He said highways, and more specifically high-occupancy vehicle lanes, could be a good first step as it will take some time and infrastructure changes before autonomous vehicles could drive on city streets. Once municipalities see positive impact across the world thanks to autonomous vehicle adoption, local leaders will want to be adopters. However, what is crucial whenever self-driving cars are discussed is the ability for the vehicles to be able to communicate with each other, and also with other modes of transportation. A self-driving car that is disconnected from its surroundings will not be palatable.
While self-driving cars seem to be all the rage, its also interesting to take a bit of a step back and think about other ways technology has already improved car travel. Certainly our autos today are connected, and they even exhibit some “self-driving” behavior like lane departure assist, blind spot warning, and automatic braking. The technology is there for a lot of this, it just needs to be properly brought together. But the tech world and transportation isn’t a new marriage, either. Uber has completely disrupted the taxi and livery business, but might it also be affecting the entire automobile industry. At SXSW, Malcolm Gladwell, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, sat down with tech investor and Uber board member Bill Gurley. Gurley believes that ridesharing is having a profound societal impact. He mentioned that millennials don’t see car ownership as a status statement like previous generations. Driving has become pure utility, a sea change from the past. Ridesharing is also impacting rental car usage, as travelers are finding it more efficient to use Uber when in a locale they’re not as familiar with. However, Gurley considers himself a skeptic when it comes to self-driving cars, even going as far as calling tech company involvement “a stunt”.
Regardless of where we end up and how long it takes to get there, there’s no question that technology and transportation continue to work together to effect societal change. Whether it’s Uber and cashless ridesharing, our cars becoming more connected, or self-driving cars eventually hitting our roadways, technology continues to change the way we travel.