Have you ever dreamed of the day where your car could drive for itself freeing you to do other things, such as reading, catching up on emails, watching a movie, or sleeping rather than focus on the road while in the car? Automotive manufacturers and transportation technology vendors are rapidly progressing us to that goal. Indeed, we discuss that “Autonomous Everything” is one of the four key parts of our AI-Enabled Vision of the Future. The power of AI and Machine Learning combined with extremely detailed city and road mapping, lane-keeping, collision avoidance, and self-parking is leading to automobiles and trucks that can take us to our destinations without us having to keep our feet on the pedals or hands on the steering wheel.
However, as we have seen recently, a number of incidents and accidents have called into question how ready this technology is for general use. Furthermore, the transportation industry continues to innovate at a lightning pace, but not all innovation is happening at the same level. In order to understand the end vision of a future filled with autonomous vehicles of all sorts, we need to understand where the industry currently stands and where it is heading.
Are All Levels of Autonomy Safe?
The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies autonomous vehicle technology capabilities into six levels, with the ultimate level at Level 5, fully self-driving, autonomous vehicles. While the ultimate goal of self-driving vehicles is one in which humans are solely passengers, the reality of the situation is that we’re moving from a world where people have complete control of their vehicle to ones where they have none at all. The problem is when we’re operating in the middle ground — vehicles having some of the control, and humans still needed for some control. The main issue is that it’s psychologically very difficult to not pay attention to something until you absolutely need to pay attention to avoid a fatal outcome.
Autonomy levels 2 and 3, and quite possibly even 4, are the most dangerous levels of autonomous driving. Humans can easily be lulled into believing that the car has more control than it actually does. As a result, people do what they do when they don’t have to give their full attention: they sleep, converse with others, play with their phones or other devices, eat meals, or otherwise disengage with the road. It’s simply unreasonable to expect people to all of a sudden wake up, stop talking, turn off their devices, put away their food, and otherwise be 100% present with only a few seconds (or less) notice. Quite possibly, vehicles at autonomy levels 2-4 could be more dangerous than Level 0, 1, and 5 vehicles because of this uncertain element of control. Furthermore, Level 2 vehicles are too easily confused as level 3 vehicles based on the way the car manufacturers are marketing and promoting their cars. This leads to people thinking that the vehicles have more autonomous capabilities than they actually do. Likewise, vehicles at level 4 become “downgraded” to lower levels when situations deteriorate. The more rapidly these situations deteriorate the faster your almost-but-not-quite fully autonomous vehicle becomes Level 0 or 1. We’re not alone in believing that Levels 2-4 could be more harmful than valuable for autonomous driving. Google/Waymo and Ford have recently announced that they will pursue only Level 5 driving to jump us to a safer and more valuable future.
Another unintended consequence of a world with mostly autonomous vehicles is that drivers start to lose practice driving in different situations as they become increasingly dependent on somewhat autonomous capabilities. Just like how many drivers can’t navigate their way around a city because of the pervasiveness of GPS, drivers that become used to Level 3 or 4 capabilities simply won’t have the experience or know-how to deal with life-or-death situations that build upon years of instinctive, muscle memory to rapidly correct.
What Happens in A World with Level 5 Autonomous Vehicles?
When most vehicles on the streets and highways are at Level 5 autonomy, it’s not just driving that changes — a lot of our society and way of life that revolves around the car and driving changes as well. When cars drive themselves, they will also park themselves. But do you need them to park in a garage you own? Will you need to hunt for parking spots? Can cities reclaim their curbs from parked cars and devote more space to walking and biking? Instead of parking your car at a parking space or garage, autonomous vehicles can simply pick you up and drop you off where you need to be, and then shuttle themselves off to some other location to park, or pick up a new passenger. If you don’t have to park your own car, will one (positive) unintended consequence be a dramatic reduction of child and pet heat-related fatalities?
As we talked about in our AI-Enabled Vision of the Future we predict there will be an “uberfication” of most things. Individuals will no longer need to (or even want to) own cars but call on them when needed such as commuting to work, running to the grocery store, or heading to your beach weekend vacation. If you no longer own a vehicle, then the garages of today won’t be necessary. Instead, if houses have garages at all, they will just be house delivery loading docks where autonomous vehicles will come to drop off packages. Why should these garages even be attached to the house then? Will detached garages now be more desirable than attached garages? Office complexes and retail establishments won’t need huge parking garages or wide expanses of parking spaces. This land can be recovered for other, more human-centric needs.
If humans are no longer needed to drive, what does this mean for mobility in general? We no longer need to make the tough call of taking keys away from elderly parents — they can have instant access to handicap-accessible vehicles that will pick them up and drop them off as necessary. Instead of the routine of buying car seats for children, we can simply call on car seat installed vehicles. We no longer need to worry about how to divide ourselves in two when we need to drop off children at different locations at the same time. We no longer need to figure out how to get low-income individuals to the doctor for an appointment. With the ability to call on a driverless vehicle at all times we now provide on-demand transportation to all. One notable side-effect of this movement to autonomous vehicles is the collapse of the rental car industry. Rental cars tomorrow will be like Blockbuster video today – a curious relic of the past. If somehow the rental car companies of today manage to survive to tomorrow it’s only because they’ve radially changed their business and adapted to a future where very few have drivers licenses and just as few even know how to drive.
Likewise, what will happen when individuals don’t need to have a driver’s license or deal with the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles? Perhaps that’s a good thing, but what does that mean as far as the idea of an identification document or revenues that states might be depending on from all vehicle-related transactions (traffic violations and license-related fees in particular). What will happen to gas stations? If people don’t need to fill up their own cars, and most likely, many autonomous vehicles will be electric powered, since range no longer is an issue, then the gas station might also become an endangered species. Indeed, the societal and overall economic impacts of a Level 5 Autonomous future is much more significant that most are thinking.
Likewise, the laws and regulations of today for driving vehicles are not at all appropriate or applicable in the self-driving future. We have new issues of liability to deal with when we have a complex combination when an on-demand driving company, self-driving vehicle, passengers, and pedestrians are involved. We need to untangle this web of liability as we have discussed in our past writing and podcast on this subject. There is going to have to be some coming together on both the state and federal level to come up with a standard for autonomous vehicles. Vehicles will need to be continuously certified to operate on roads where fewer and fewer non-autonomous vehicles will be present.
Embrace the Future or Risk Demise
The more we think about the future that’s Level 5 Autonomous, the more we realize how much this will result in changes — not just for individual drivers or car companies, but for everyone. Your business and your life will be impacted. And it is our belief that this will happen sooner than you expect. Have you thought about how autonomous driving is going to effect your business? Everything from insurance to retail to restaurants to office parks to residential builders, city planners, gas station owners, rental car companies and more will be immediately and dramatically impacted. Have you already built a strategy for dealing with the AI-Enabled Future?
For other CTOvision Reporting on autonomous vehicles see:
- Autonomous Vehicles Silicon Valley
- Time For A Fourth Law of Robotics
- Follow-Up on Hackers Taking Over Your Car
- WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
- Smart Cities Cybersecurity Challenge
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