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Self-Driving Vehicles: From Prototypes to Commercial Success
Self-Driving Vehicles: From Prototypes to Commercial Success
From real estate and jobs to insurance and law enforcement, no digital application will have more far-reaching consequences than self-driving cars and trucks.
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From real estate and jobs to insurance and law enforcement, no digital application will have more far-reaching consequences than self-driving cars and trucks.

Consider just a few of the implications highlighted in prior Trends issues:
  1. Fewer personal cars. Once the cost of the driver is taken out of the Uber ride-hailing equation, the life-cycle cost of car ownership will make car ownership far less attractive; mobility-as-a-service (or MAAS) will dominate and fleets of autonomous cars will roam cities and suburbs, 24/7, waiting for passenger calls and selecting passengers based on optimization algorithms.
  2. Short vehicle life. Over a 10-month period, a single MAAS car could travel as much as 300,000 miles before being retired; that still leaves plenty of time for recharging, cleaning, and maintenance.
  3. Many fewer cars. One autonomous car will replace about 30 traditional cars. That could reduce today's 258 million registered cars in the U.S. to less than 10 million.
  4. Mostly smaller cars. Over 50% of driverless cars are expected to be one-or-two passenger vehicles. Why? 76% of cars on the road now have only one person in them, and one-person vehicles will be cheaper to operate.
  5. Governmental disruption. Mobility-as-a-service, will jeopardize 40% of current sales tax revenues. Today, roughly 40%of state and local sales taxes come from consumer auto sales. Under the current rules, all cars in a commercial fleet are exempt from sales tax.
  6. Insurance will change, forever. There will be a huge reduction in automobile-related healthcare cost due to accidents. These could decline by $500 billion per year. And as fleets self-insure, the "Geico Gecko" will need to find a new job.
  7. Most retail businesses associated with cars will disappear. As personal ownership of cars begins to shrink, we will see a rapid decline in gas stations, car washes, oil change businesses, detail shops, and auto insurance offices. Dealerships themselves will also disappear. And,
  8. Many fewer garages. Home and public garages, like horse stables in NYC, will become relics of the past. Repurposing these facilities will become big business.
These changes may take 15-to-20 years to fully play themselves out. But they are almost inevitable.

Notably, this list doesn't even consider the enormous economic implications of self-driving commercial vehicles, like over-the-road freight carriers or local service and delivery vehicles.

As with most game-changing technologies, self-driving automobiles have ridden a psychological roller-coaster, as hype has met reality. When we started tracking this technology many years ago, the Trends editors identified three major hurdles that needed to be overcome: technical performance, consumer acceptance, and regulatory hurdles.

Technical Performance

Now, after more than a decade of serious development, the technical barriers are coming down rapidly. Consider just one prominent example.

General Motors showed off its Cruise AV in January 2019 And, in March, it announced plans to put these self-driving cars, devoid of steering wheels and pedals into production in 2019 The car, also known as the Cruise Autonomous Vehicle, is based on the Chevrolet Bolt EV and production will take place at GM's Orion Township plant in Michigan, the same plant where the Bolt EV is produced.

GM plans to start a commercial service for the vehicles next year, where the public would be able to hail a ride via an app.

The roof-mounted modules that contain most of the hardware required for automated driving, including lidar, radar, and cameras, will be produced at GM's Brownstown plant. The plant, which is also located in Michigan, is where GM currently produces batteries and will also produce fuel cell stacks beginning in 2020.

GM President Dan Ammann said, "We're continuing to make great progress on our plan to commercialize [the Cruise AV] in 2019 Our Orion and Brownstown teams have proven experience in building high-quality self-driving test vehicles and battery packs, so they are well-prepared to produce the Cruise AV."

GM is yet to announce which location(s) the Cruise AV will be launched in, though it will likely be somewhere where prototypes are already testing. The list includes downtown San Francisco, as well as Scottsdale, Arizona and Warren, Michigan. GM also plans to start testing prototypes in Manhattan soon.

Regulatory Barriers

On the regulatory front, GM is still waiting on federal approval for use of the Cruise AV on public streets, which is much harder than for other self-driving cars because of the lack of a steering wheel and pedals. The Cruise prototypes have circumvented this issue because they still have steering wheels and pedals.

The automaker will also need to receive approval at the state level; the current list of states with regulations that would allow the Cruise AV include Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Should all go according to plan, the cars will join a ride-sharing fleet either operated by GM or a partner such as Lyft. GM, last August, announced its own ride-sharing service called Cruise Anywhere that so far has only been used by employees at Cruise Automation, the self-driving car development company acquired by GM in 2016 for roughly $1 billion.

Waymo, the self-driving division of tech giant Alphabet, says it plans to start its own self-driving service very soon in Phoenix, Arizona. The company fits its self-driving system to Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and is testing the technology in 25 cities across the United States.

Both GM and Waymo's self-driving cars have Level 4 capability, which means they are restricted to areas with extensive map data and are also incapable of handling certain weather conditions, such as heavy snow. The final goal for GM and Waymo is a Level 5 car, which can handle any situation that a human driver is capable of handling.

Meanwhile, it looks like UBER is ready to jump on the Waymo bandwagon. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently said, we "welcome Waymo to put cars in our network." Alluding to an incident in April where one of Uber's self-driving cars was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian, he said, "When we get back on the [self-driving] road, we have to be absolutely satisfied we're getting back on the road in the safest manner possible."

Consumer acceptance

It also appears that the consumer acceptance barrier for self-driving cars is rapidly falling. A survey titled, The Road to Autonomous Vehicles - 2018, found that 70 percent of Americans expect that autonomous, self-driving vehicles will be commonplace in America within the next 15 years. When asked to identify benefits that automated vehicles will bring, 51 percent of all respondents identified increased mobility for non-drivers, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, as the single most important benefit.

Meanwhile, 41 percent of all respondents including 49 percent of millennials cited reduced accidents and increased safety. 23 percent of all respondents including 33 percent of millennials also cited improved safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Most were apparently unaware of the big cost savings.

The bottom line is that self-driving cars and trucks are no longer a matter of "if," but merely "when." Our challenge as consumers, investors and managers is to be among the winners in this fast-changing game.

Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

First, beginning in 2019 and 2020, companies will invest serious money in the ramp-up and roll-out of self-driving car services. Apple and Intel have enormous financial resources ready and able to support their self-driving entries, when and if they are ready to commercialize. Alphabet is also prepared to tap its huge reserves to make Waymo a success. And, General Motors' self-driving car business just received a huge vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

The fund, considered the world's biggest tech investor, will inject $2.25 billion into GM Cruise in return for a 19.6 percent stake. An initial payment of $900 million will be made this year with the remainder to be paid out when GM Cruise's self-driving cars are ready for commercial deployment, scheduled for 2019.

As part of the deal, GM will also invest an additional $1.1 billion in GM Cruise. SoftBank investment adviser Michael Ronen said, "The GM Cruise approach of "a fully integrated hardware and software stack" gives it a unique competitive advantage." And given Tesla's production problems, GM's manufacturing expertise is also a big plus.  

Second, by 2021, self-driving automobiles will reach the "tipping point" where over 50% of U.S. consumers are willing to use the service. According to The Road to Autonomous Vehicles - 2018 survey, 59 percent of Americans still believe autonomous vehicles are not as safe as vehicles operated by people and 55 percent would not be willing to ride in an autonomous vehicle, today. However, the ability of a person to assume control of the vehicle, would reportedly convince 60 percent of Americans to ride in a self-driving vehicle.

That may indicate that Level 4 autonomous vehicles with steering wheels and pedals would win over a majority of consumers. And,

Third, in addition to regular consumer transportation, by 2025, commercial business models will also benefit from self-driving technology. For instance, consider the implications of offering customers fully autonomous rides to and from your business. According to experts, the move could have big implications not only for businesses but for cities, public transportation systems and car owners. Or consider the benefits of self-driving pizza delivery vehicles.

Also, "There's an infinite number of new advertising modes that become possible," says Hod Lipson, a Columbia University engineering professor and author of the book "Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead."

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