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Many Routes for Self-Driving Cars

The dream of cars that drive themselves is finally something that some consumers are beginning to experience, but the vision and dream is more than 100 years old. 

Early efforts used radio-based controls to remotely pilot the vehicle and smart highway infrastructure that could communicate with vehicles in comparison to the more modern approach of vision-based software platforms. The idea of autonomous transportation lives in earlier eras of science fiction, leaving many to wonder where is my flying, self-driving car?

While they might not be flying (yet), the technology today is impressive and capable of handling many of the driving scenarios that drivers face every day. Most consumer vehicles have some level of self-driving capabilities, from safety features to situational, hands-free driving. On the other hand, there aren’t any fully featured self-driving vehicles on the road for consumers. There have been starts and stops in technology development in the past decades, with approaches changing to utilize the capabilities provided through machine learning. However, as with any major change, it is not a pure technological problem to solve. 

Future Narratives

In exploring  the  future of self-driving cars, 

I uncovered a lot of the external factors that are influencing the pathway to full autonomy in the United States. Factors such as: 

  • Who owns the vehicles?

  • Are they public or private services? 

  • How connected are vehicles? and

  • What factors are pushing against adoption came to the forefront?

The main conclusion I drew was there are many, many choices to be made that will determine the future of self-driving cars, but not a lot of connection and coordination between those who have decision making influence in these areas. 

To help us better understand these challenges, here are four narratives of the future of self-driving vehicles with images to illustrate the range of futures available to us. 

Future 1: Like and Subscribe

Story 1: Jonathan leaves his house at 7:30 a.m. every morning and hops into the same vehicle, but he doesn’t own it. Instead, he pays a monthly subscription to use it. He schedules his usage based on his needs. It’s a little bit extra than waiting for availability, but his work demands it. Basically, all vehicles are fleet owned, and take the early day rideshare model to the next level. Based on his behavior and habits, which are generally monitored by the vehicle, he is automatically rated by the company and his meter rate has improved due to his high score.

Jonathan is able to pay just for what he uses instead of owning. In this future, owning a vehicle is too costly and few have their own. However, that comes with a tradeoff for data collection, and the new suite of loyalty programs just like you have for hotels or flights. Ultimately this gives a lot of independence and choice to consumers. And, it allows him to either pay for a parking space, or to use the “garage space” at his single-family home for something else.

Future 2: Free Rides, at a Price

Story 2: Serina hops onto the free ride to go to work, shopping and to meet friends for coffee or pizza. While the ride is free, the choices are limited. She is inundated by advertisements the whole time, which are targeted to her. Her personal devices are blocked from accessing the internet unless she pays extra to use her smart devices. While she can technically go anywhere she likes for dinner, the vehicle may charge extra to go to a non-sponsored restaurant. Because the free ride is owned by a company that must make it accessible to all, every little detail above that requirement has been monetized. 

In this future, most AVs are owned by a limited number of companies that leverage the attention economy to cover costs, but also have to offer it as a public service. They recoup costs through advertisements that are plastered on the interior and exterior of the automated vehicle, or more complex monetization strategies. She asks to go to a pizza place, and she has to choose between going to the sponsored pizza place for free or paying extra to travel to her favorite places regardless of distance. Since this future made transportation a public service run by private companies, it drives companies towards finding extreme ways to make money. 

Future 3: Suburbia Utopia

Story 3: Anthony lives out in the suburbs and his family has just one vehicle. Unlike when he was a kid, the family vehicle is a shared resource. It’s linked into the family’s online calendar to automatically transport everyone around. No more soccer moms, kids just show up in their own vehicles to practice. Yet, Anthony can remote into the car while anyone in his family is riding to talk as if that is family time. He gets alerts to confirm that his kids get in the car, at the right time. Later tonight his family will go out to dinner in the same vehicle, and their family friends will be joining them in a networked car so they can connect during their travel. 

Here the vehicles are frequently owned by families, who make due with a single vehicle. It offers a lot of mobility while keeping it dedicated to one family, so they can store their items and trust it is there. This could open up more family time opportunities or further enable the busy schedule. Either way, the calendar and flexibility in scheduling is the central aspect of the vehicle experience. Schools may find more pressure to allow flexible school or extracurricular activities so family members can share the vehicle. In this future, young people no longer take driving lessons or need to pass a driver’s test, and schools have to adjust how they offer programs. 

Future 4: Freeway Frenzy

Story 4: Isabel sighs; it’s happening again. Her self-driving car is trying to park at a busy store and as a spot opens up, her vehicle signals its intent to park. However, a human-controlled car rushed in and sniped the spot, because her vehicle will always yield to human drivers. There are many examples of these reckless behaviors by human drivers who trust the automated drivers will yield, like freeway merging and pedestrians crossing the roads anywhere. Isabel is lucky that nothing bad has happened, but some of her friends have had minor incidents that caused some damage.

This is a long running transition, where there could be a lot of time spent with human and auto drivers leading to unexpected behaviors. People could find ways to hack the technology and benefit themselves. Will people trust the vehicles to stop when they do something reckless? Most of the system changes are fixes fit in the category of shifting the burden or fixes that fail instead of true system change. Over time, local and state government officials face the dilemma of whether it’s time to limit and possibly eliminate driving privileges for humans, or if there will be separation of roads for autonomous and human driving.

What the Future Holds for Self-Driving Vehicles

Where will we end up? Of course, we don’t know, and I don’t aim to make any specific predictions. These scenarios are also highly biased towards people who already have access to cars in the United States. But what about in emerging and evolving markets? What about alternative vehicles that can do more specialized tasks (transporting goods)? What about flying options? There are signals that would indicate the stories above are just a glimpse at the many roads to take, and I certainly hope that we can broaden our minds to what is possible.


About the Author

Jeremy Wilken is an academically trained futurist and seasoned engineering leader focusing on how to shape positive futures with technology. He holds an MS Foresight from the accredited University of Houston program. He has authored two books, spoken globally at events, run podcasts, and is recognized by Google as a Developer Expert. He lives with his family in Austin TX.

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