Nobody, not even transportation experts like me, had an inkling that ride-on-demand services like Uber would change our travel habits so quickly and dramatically. Never in our lifetime have we witnessed such a rapid shift in transportation. Despite global protests, pushback and even outright bans, Uber has become a commanding social and political force—and a $70 billion company—in just eight years. Including Uber’s competitors, like Lyft and Via, the ride-share industry has provided more than 10 billion rides.
But the reverberations from ride-share apps are nothing compared with what will happen when autonomous vehicles become the norm. This new industry is on its way to becoming a multitrillion-dollar business—bigger than Amazon and
combined. According to the World Economic Forum, the digital transformation of the auto industry will deliver $3.1 trillion annually in societal benefits by reducing the number of crashes, the impact of carbon emissions and the cost of car ownership, including maintenance, fuel and insurance. A 2017 study from Intel predicted that the global autonomous-vehicle market will generate $7 trillion annually by 2050—both directly (industrial use) and indirectly (savings from shorter commutes and a reduced need for emergency services).
Everything around us will be altered by autonomous vehicles—our roads, our warehouses and even our definition of what a car can be. Say goodbye to four wheels and a running board; the cars of the future will barely resemble the vehicles choking our cities today.
Warehouses Take Flight
Autonomous technology and advancements in other fields will give rise to blimplike “floating warehouses,” with drones that deliver goods to your door (Amazon and Walmart have applied for patents to create such a vessel). Operated autonomously or by a remote human pilot, these warehouses, flying 500 to 1,000 feet in the air, will slash the costs of fulfilling online orders and the number of delivery trucks—to the detriment of shippers like
Kiss Conventional Car Design Goodbye
Prototypes for autonomous vehicles resemble streamlined versions of the cars you see on roads today. But autonomous vehicles won’t look like cars for long. “Once you eliminate the need for a steering wheel and a driver, the design possibilities are endless,” says the car designer Dan Sturges. Cars could be compact and egg-shaped or boxlike mobile homes, and they’ll offer much more than mobility. They’ll be our personal assistants and come with flexible design features: a pop-up workstation that turns into a baby-changing table, a gym that becomes a mobile exam room that can transmit test results to your doctor.
The Multilevel Street
Drastically different car design means drastically different roadways. Freeing up the ground level for pedestrians and shopping, underground roads could be reserved for autonomous cars. Instead of lane lines and street signs, a network of smart devices—embedded in vehicles and infrastructure—would communicate on the fly to accommodate traffic. The road itself could suggest a faster route for you to take.
The End of Motorcycles
Driverless vehicles could be a death knell for motorcycles. Motorcycle ridership is already in decline. Autonomous technology will make things even worse. “There is a very real risk of motorcycling being completely cut out of the conversation,” a 2017 report from Give a Shift concluded. As autonomy makes transport safer, city planners, insurance companies and car manufacturers may see motorcycles as an unnecessary danger. The police report for a crash last year in San Francisco—in which a driverless car hit a motorcycle—found the motorcyclist at fault.
“AV” Meets ATV
New technology may present an opportunity to make more all-terrain vehicles, especially for industry. Honda is developing an ATV that can carry just about anything except a driver. These machines could be used in various settings, from farming and construction to search and rescue.
Schwartz is an international traffic consultant. This essay is adapted from his new book, “No One at the Wheel,” which will be published on Nov. 13 by PublicAffairs.