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The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios X

Autonomous vehicles are not here yet but it is a sure bet they will come. The big question is when and how that will change societal behaviour. Image credit: Pioneering Minds – Creating the future

Autonomous Vehicles

Technology to support autonomous vehicles is already available. Think about military drones -UAV, Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles-, automated subway trains… You can also think about early versions of autonomous cars, like Waymo. Technology might not be totally affordable, it might require further enhancement but it is here. The reasons why it is not deployed are beyond technology. They involve regulation, deployment procedure, transition management, economics and, most important, an evolution of societal perception of what transportation is.

Although there have been several studies on the possible impact of fully autonomous vehicles, and more are under way, there is no consensus on what the future will be like in terms of societal perception.

In the military sector autonomous vehicles, as mentioned are a reality but they have not reached the peak of their evolution.  Autonomous Robot Soldiers may be the future, a first step could be autonomous robe-soldiers flanking human soldiers. There is information on investment in this area (although figures are probably inaccurate and for sure the results achieved so far, and the plans, are shrouded in secrecy).

Another area where autonomous vehicles are a reality is space mission. Autonomous rovers have been deployed on Mars and autonomous probes have been sent to other planets and comets with more to come in this decade (including a mission to land on Mars, retrieving rock specimens and bringing them back to Earth). This is an area where cost is not an issue (to a certain extent) and where it does not need to be supported by a viable business model.

In the general domain, the interest for autonomous vehicles is growing as technology is becoming more viable and affordable products (supporting specific business models) are just round the corner.

Business plans have been drawn for autonomous drones to transport people, autonomous flying taxis, in Dubai, Singapore and Los Angeles (probably in this temporal order) within the next two years. It will take several more years for flying taxis to become as normal as today’s taxis but the roadmap is there and it is credible. Interestingly, whilst in Dubai flying taxis are seen as a way to provide faster travel time, in Singapore and Los Angeles are seen as a way to decrease traffic congestion. This different goals have different implication of deployment and on people’s perception. Whilst in Dubai one can expect the flying taxis to serve those having deep pockets and willing to trade money for shaving off some time in travel, in Singapore and Los Angeles the goal can be achieved only when flying vehicles will make a dent in the mass market traffic. Hence, their price will have to be affordable to a broad market segment and the number of flying vehicles shall reach at least 10% of the current road moving vehicles.

The perception of safety will need to become widespread and achieving that type of safety will require the set up of an infrastructure that today is simply unheard of. Air space control is based on the separation of vehicles (a few km in separation at the same altitude and at least a thousands feet in altitude). With this kind of separation it won’t be possible to manage the kind of traffic density that is required to alleviate road traffic.

Autonomous cars are basically at the end of the rainbow. They seem close but it will take a few decades before current “driven-cars” will be completely replaced by autonomous cars. 

In addition to economics and regulation here the consumer perception is going to shape the market and define the impact. 

There have been  number of studies showing that an autonomous car of the sort you can call to pick you up can potentially decrease the number of cars by 50 to 60%. The reasoning is based on the fact that an autonomous car is a pure transportation means providing the service of taking people from A to B. Such a service could be provided with the same type of availability you would experience having your own car parked on the sidewalk.  Whether or not people will choose the service over the ownership of the car is matter of discussion and speculation. As a matter of fact, cities offering shared cars have seen a decrease in ownership. There might be some people that would rather own the autonomous car and will keep buying but it is taken for granted that car manufacturers will see a decrease in sales over the next 3 decades. The current world production of about 70 million cars is going to decrease and this will create problems to a sector where margin are thin and scale economies very important. More than that. Autonomous cars will remove the driver passion from driving, no more over-speeding and quick acceleration. Hence it will be difficult to sell cars because of their performances…

If the number of cars will be decreasing, as result of autonomous driving, the traffic on the road may actually increase.

The reason is that transportation service will become more efficient, hence more people will be using it. The traffic congestion in cities like Los Angeles, may not get any better (even though autonomous cars will be able to run in a denser traffic). Flying taxi business will not be disturbed by autonomous cars.

The digital transformation will be crucial in the shift from ownership to transport on demand (service) as it has already been in making share car service possible.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.