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We've been discussing driverless vehicles for more than a decade, when they first appeared as a blip at the edge of our radar.
In 2002, DARPA issued its Grand Challenge, with a $1 million prize for the team that could design a vehicle that could navigate a 150-mile stretch of the Mojave Desert without human intervention. All 21 of the entries failed, but a car created by a Carnegie Mellon team managed to drive more than seven miles on its own before getting stuck on a rock.
Most of the stories that were published about the contest focused on the failures. But the combination of government funding, crowdsourced innovation, and preliminary results indicated to us that driverless cars could someday evolve from those first few clumsy prototypes stalled in the desert dust to sleek machines roaming the nation's streets and highways. In more than a dozen updates since then, we've focused on the promising potential of driverless cars, trucks, and military vehicles to revolutionize transportation, cities, and warfare.
Now, the potential is finally ready to be transformed into reality. As always, the emergence of a disruptive innovation occurs at the intersection of changes in demography, human behavior, and technology. In the case of driverless vehicles, two demographic forces are creating the demand for autonomous cars:
The 77 million Baby Boomers are either rapidly approaching their senior years or they're already there. They grew up aspiring to own cars, and when they can no longer drive safely, they are not going to want to take public transportation. The oldest members of this generation, who were born in 1946, are now 71; the youngest, born in 1964, are 53.
As their eyes weaken and their reflexes slow, Boomers will increasingly lose the ability to drive their own cars. And yet, as we've discussed in previous issues, Boomers are hesitant to retire, either because they haven't saved enough money for retirement, or because they are too valuable to their employers, or because they don't want to give up the sense of purpose that working provides.
Driverless vehicles will enable Boomers to continue their generation's love affair with the car; despite cataracts, glaucoma, or arthritis, they'll be able to "drive" to work simply by selecting the destination and letting the car pilot itself. Even the growing number of employees who will work from home will be able to use driverless cars for shopping, recreation, and socializing with friends.
The Millennials, born 1982 to 2000, in general feel much differently than Boomers about owning cars.
Crushed by college loan debt and bleak employment prospects, the oldest members of this generation survived the Great Recession by learning to avoid the high costs of ownership. Instead of buying homes, until recently they've moved back into their parents' homes after college. And instead of buying cars, they've relied on ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.
In just the short period from 2000 to 2013, the percentage of licensed drivers among Americans aged 16 to 24 dropped from 76 percent to 71 percent. Millennials (and Generation Z that follows them) generally won't feel the need to buy their own cars; they'll prefer the convenience of on- demand transportation, without the hassles and costs of license plates, parking, maintenance, insurance, speeding tickets, and DUIs.
In addition, political and regulatory forces now favor the commercialization of the driverless car. In 2016, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration declared that computers could be legally considered as drivers of vehicles.
While the Obama administration was often supportive of the technology, (by including $4 billion for autonomous vehicle pilot projects in its 2017 budget proposal, for example) too often over the past eight years regulations have impeded the progress of breakthrough ideas, such as fracking. With a new administration in place that has pledged to reduce regulations, the shackles that have prevented disruptive technologies from reaching their potential have been removed.
Most importantly, the technology for driverless vehicles is finally accelerating along the cost- performance trajectory to the point where it will soon become affordable to the mass market. The most expensive component of the autonomous vehicle system is the lidar sensor, which uses a laser to illuminate objects in the car's path to identify them.
Google's parent company Alphabet owns Waymo, a company that produces lidar. In his keynote address at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2017, Waymo CEO John Krafcik declared, "Just a few years ago, a single top-of-the-range lidar cost upwards of $75,000. Today, we've brought down that cost by more than 90 percent. As we look to scale, we will do even better, with the goal of making this technology accessible to millions of people."
According to a report by Business Insider, Waymo's lidar is already affordable for buyers of luxury cars, at the current price of $7,500.1 However, a new report from Bain & Company estimates that the cost of lidar will plunge to $150 within the next decade.2 At that price, it could easily be incorporated into even the cheapest vehicles.
Based on this trend, we offer the following forecasts:
First, a decade from now nearly 10 million driverless cars will be on the road.
Several major automobile manufacturers and tech companies, including Toyota, Google, Tesla, Uber, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Apple, Audi, Bosch, and Delphi Automotive are frantically working on bringing autonomous vehicles to showrooms by the end of the decade.
As soon as the end of 2020, 100,000 autonomous cars are likely to be safely navigating the nation's roads beside vehicles driven by humans. From there, the number is likely to rise to 6.4 million by 2026, before soaring to 50 million in 2029.
Second, driverless cars will unleash many economic benefits. According to a Brookings Institution report, research by Kena Fedorschak of Arizona State University and Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Kevin Desouza found that autonomous vehicles will enable U.S. taxpayers to save $10 billion per year simply by preventing traffic jams and fatalities. The health benefits of eliminating driving-induced stress will also be substantial. And as the time available during commutes is turned into time for work, rest, or entertainment, productivity and quality of life will soar.
Third, the impact on car manufacturers will be transformative, but not deadly.
For most people, ride-hailing apps will offer a better cost-benefit trade-off than car ownership, regardless of whether we're talking about human drivers or self-driving vehicles. Conventional wisdom suggests that if people continue to keep buying rides rather than cars, the demand for automobiles will drop, and companies like Ford, Toyota, and GM will be in trouble. But that's not how we see it playing out.
Currently, The New York Times reports that Americans buy about 17 million cars and light trucks per year; worldwide sales are about 75 million units. According to the Boston Consulting Group, carmakers will sell 44,000 cars to ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in 2021; that will more than offset the projected drop in consumer sales of 8,000 cars over the short term.
Fourth, car manufacturers will shift to a new business model that generates profits in a different way.
Research from Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) found that of the $400 billion that the world's automotive industry reaps in profits each year, it currently generates just 41 percent ($164 billion) from selling new cars. By 2030, PwC expects the industry's profits to go up to $600 billion. But, the percentage from new car sales will drop from 41 percent to 29 percent.
Instead, profitability will increasingly depend on "mobility services," such as ride-hailing. According to The New York Times, Ford is already looking forward to the shift. Producing cars requires huge fixed investment in factories, labor, and robots, resulting in a margin of 8 percent if everything goes right. By contrast, Ford expects to generate a margin of 20 percent from "mobility services," according to Ford's CFO Robert Shanks.
Fifth, Boomers and Millennials will both embrace driverless cars, but for different reasons and in different ways.
A large share of Boomers will use them out of necessity, as their ability to drive wanes with age; the Silent Generation will be at the vanguard of this trend. However, these early adopters will have both the financial resources and the entrenched desire for car ownership that will motivate them to buy their own autonomous vehicles.
They may not do the steering, but they will still derive pleasure and status from the sense of ownership. Auto manufacturers will market vehicles to Boomers that feature luxurious amenities, comfortable seating areas, and attractive exteriors. By contrast, Millennials will use driverless cars not out of necessity, but by choice.
Even as their incomes increase, they will frequently avoid owning cars. Instead, they will pay for rides as needed. Builders will begin to construct homes without garages just for them. And automakers will design very economical, unadorned, low-frills vehicles for the ride-hailing companies that will win the Millennials' business.
Sixth, two powerful trends are converging on a collision course, and the wreckage will leave millions jobless.
The growth of the "gig economy," in which people either forgo or supplement full-time jobs with a multitude of small "gigs" such as driving a car or walking a dog, is about to collide with the increasing automation of those same gigs by driverless vehicles and service robots.
Uber and Lyft aren't very forthcoming about the number of drivers they currently employ. However, in Virginia, which requires paid drivers to register with the Department of Motor Vehicles, The Washington Post reported that more than 117,000 drivers for Uber and Lyft had registered since June 2015.8 Considering that Virginia's population as of the 2013 Census was 8.26 million, we calculate that that equals one ride-hailing driver per 70.6 residents.
Extrapolating that proportion across the current U.S. population of 324.5 million would suggest that 4.6 million Americans now drive for Uber or Lyft. That number might seem too high, and geographical distortions could be a factor; for example, Montana's population density is much lower than Virginia's.
But, according to Fortune, in July 2016, Uber and Lyft drivers combined to provide 76 million trips in the U.S.9 If there actually are 4.6 million drivers, the average would be 16.5 rides per driver in that month. Considering that some drivers are registered but inactive and others only pick up a few fares per month, 4.6 million might be too low an estimate.
The New York Times reports that Lyft and General Motors are planning to launch a test program in Detroit that will use autonomous cars to transport passengers over short distances. Uber is testing the same concept in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Delphi Automotive has driverless Audis shuttling people to train stations in Singapore. Ford plans to market a self-driving car for ride-hailing services by 2021.10
All of these developments strongly suggest that the 5+ million Americans who are currently generating some or all of their wages by driving for Uber, Lyft, or a taxi company will need to find another source of income before self-driving cars soar to near 10 million units, a decade from now.
Fortunately, the watchword of the gig economy is "flexibility"; strong economic growth and broad-based innovation will easily absorb these people. A bigger challenge will involve repositioning millions of well-paid professional truck drivers who are likely to be displaced as self-driving technology becomes mainstream.
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