I’m not so sure, from the non-technical side. I see the tech angle clearly; electric for sure is the future. So-called “autonomy,” a misnomer in any event (Malcolm Gladwell had some very interesting articles in Car & Driver I think about that) is another matter. I’m not at all convinced that cars as service, which is I think where non-human operated vehicles are headed, makes much sense for car makers. I think the number of vehicles sold would decrease without additional revenue streams to make up for it. I see much of the infrastructure and support network that would make up the bulk of the monetization of autonomous vehicles outside the hands and pockets of the manufacturers of cars. Tesla is trying I think to change that, but as far as scope and scale go it’s more important what Ford, GM, and VW do in the long run, and I don’t see them making a ton of money off of pure autonomy.
I think legal and liability issues are big, too, but I think culture and human geography are big as well. As I’ve noted before, much of the country does not live in areas where current visions of autonomous cars make much sense. More importantly, most of the country I’d wager–you know, the chunk that isn’t made up of coastal city urbanites and suburbanites–I don’t think wants autonomous cars, really (or autonomous F-150s!) I really think the future will play out with various pathways in play. Cities and major suburbs will develop autonomous zones and cars without drivers will be the norm; maybe human driven cars will be restricted, or have special lanes, or be banned, I dunno. Outside those areas, I suspect conventionally operated vehicles, increasingly electric, will be the norm. There will be a lot of room for work in the interface between these two zones, with some stuff, like robot-driven trucks, joining the two, along with one could hope renewed interest in high-speed rail transport.
If there’s one thing I’m not concerned about, it’s companies coming up with additional revenue streams. I can easily envision a future where cars are fully autonomous and nobody owns them, but instead owns a “subscription”. After all, when cars are fully automated they’re going to need to be constantly updated to maintain safety and security, and we can’t have individuals responsible for stuff like that…
The airbags will be built in of course, but you’ll have to pay for the extra DLC to enable them…
Heh. I hear ya. Of course, in the twentieth century, the automakers were able to be profitable because they had a pretty much captive audience, little competition within each national market for much of the century and, crucially, enormous influence over much of the ancillary aspects of the business, like finance, maintenance, and parts, for much of that period. In the new era, I doubt the manufacturers will have nearly as much sway in the marketplace, but of course, that remains to be seen.
I do think though that cars-as-services will result in fewer, not more, sales. Much of the impetus for car buying today, in an era of solidly built reliable cars, comes from desires to stand out, to personalize, and to indulge in specific driving styles or have a specific image or feature. While certainly an autonomous marketplace will support some of those things, the way I see it is a far more homogenized landscape where the companies running these services (and therefore actually buying the cars, much like dealers do today) simply will not have the need to buy as many (reliability and software upgrades) or as great a variety (limiting costs, dealer-added customizations on standard units, etc.).
Yeah, someone is gonna make money, I’m just not sue it’s going to be automakers this time.