How Self-Driving Vehicles Will Change The Transportation Industry

The question is not if self-driving, autonomous vehicles will change the world, it’s how. Actually, it’s how much. Consider what the drone has done for aviation, what robotics have done for manufacturing, or how automation has done for… well, everything. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to be equally revolutionary, and their impact promises to be as far-reaching as any modern technological breakthrough.

Changes to the Workforce

One of the biggest impacts autonomous vehicles will have on the transportation industry will take place within the shipping sector, namely the trucking and mass transit industries. Currently, these sectors rely almost exclusively on human drivers to operate city buses, taxis, and semis to haul people and goods across the globe. It takes no giant leap in logic to see the inevitable shift that’s coming, where drivers will be replaced by on-board, GPS-guided computers that never miss a stop… and require only routine maintenance vs. a competitive wage.  

According to a McKinsey & Company analysis, autonomous vehicles (AVs as they call them) have already made their way into certain private sector applications “that feature controlled environments, such as mining and farming. In these cases, the restricted nature of operations and the possibility to operate on private roads facilitate adoption.”

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The first-step towards automated mass transit has also already taken hold in the form of Uber and other “e-hailing” rideshare type services for commuters. While the drivers are still human (for now), the technology that has spurred the widespread adoption of such commuter services can be considered stage one—or a proving ground, of sorts—for the adoption of fully-automated services that will be wholly driven by technology, pun intended.

How the Market(ing) Will Change

At some point in the evolution of self-driving vehicles, the drivers themselves will become irrelevant. Instead, drivers will become customers, and vehicles transition from a good (something we own and control) to a service (a necessity offered by others that we simply utilize).

This undeniably huge change in the automotive market will force vehicle manufacturers to radically redefine the sales model they have been using for over a century. According to Forbes, “Once transportation is available when you need it [as a service] and can be summoned by clicking on a smartphone app, owning a car will become a choice rather than a necessity. It may be that in the future, manufacturers will appeal to consumers by the quality of the features offered by their local vehicle fleets, rather than targeting their marketing to influence individuals to purchase a specific vehicle.”

Safety Implications of ‘Hands-Free Driving’

Cynics might argue that the driving force behind the concept of self-driving vehicles is purely capitalistic. They’re not wrong, but that argument misses another major market force: safety and reliability. Transportation companies lose money every time a shipment is delayed or gets delivered to the wrong address. Their bottom line also suffers any time an accident puts a driver and/or a vehicle out of commission.

Automation has the potential to significantly reduce the element of human error, therefore driving down production costs for the businesses and user costs for the consumer, not to mention saving lives. The safety upside for the general driving public—who, let’s face it, would rather keep their eyes glued to their cell phones instead of the road—promises to be even greater.

Free Time in the Car

Speaking of eyes glued to cell phones, have you ever wondered why tech giants like Google and Apple are pioneering self-driving cars? Simple… they want you to be spending as much time as possible playing with their products instead of mindlessly (profit-lessly) driving your car to and fro.

To put it a less cynical, more idealistic way, automation in the transportation industry means freedom. That McKinsey & Company report found that driverless cars could free up about 50 minutes a day for commuters. The payoff for manufacturers like Google? As the report said, “it could also create a large pool of value, potentially generating global digital-media revenues of $5 billion per year for every additional minute people spend on the mobile Internet while in a car.”

There’s no doubt big changes are coming to the transportation industry… and coming soon. Children of millennials will likely be the first generation to embrace the self-driving car, and their children might be the first to grow up never needing a driver’s license. The altruistic goal is safety. The business goal is profit. Somewhere in the middle will be the consumers, happily chatting away on their mobile devices as their autonomous vehicle delivers them safely—and on time—to their destination.   

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