What autonomous vehicles will really do for us

The conversation has thus far been about when we'll have self-driving cars, but the real issue is how they will affect society, and you.

Toyota Highway Teammate
Toyota's Highway Teammate, a modified Lexus GS the company is using to trial autonomous driving technology. Credit: Toyota Motor

The hype is almost deafening: Self-driving cars are coming. The debate no longer surrounds if, but when. All of the automakers, large and small, big tech players, universities and government agencies around the globe are working on and towards driving autonomy. This is being made possible by the steady progression of Moore's Law. We now have processing power sufficient to handle driving tasks in real time, at affordable price points.

It's definitely happening. And while we're still some way from seeing hands-free cars and trucks streaming down the world's roads in volume, it's valuable to understand what's happening, and how you can benefit from it.

Not your father's something-mobile

At almost all levels, cars have become rolling sensor and processing platforms. Even modest, low-cost compacts are bristling with sensing capabilities that were the dominion of NASA and fighter planes only a decade ago. Modern engines are systems, with parameters being adjusted many times per second to ensure maximal fuel efficiency with minimal emissions.

The complexity of this has even made it possible for engineers to "game" the system to their advantage (you know what automaker scandal I'm referring to here). Then there are the sensors and microprocessing subsystems that have to do with driving itself, such as traction control, antilock braking, antiskid and more. Newer sensor packages, initially appearing on higher end models, implement collision avoidance, self-parking and other features that enhance safety and driver convenience. This is all building up to, you guessed it, the autonomous vehicle. 

Got it. So where is this taking us?

Let's jump out a decade or two: With a sufficient percentage of on-road vehicles piloting themselves, accident rates will probably decrease dramatically. Without the intimacy of personally driving a vehicle, the attractiveness of ownership is likely to lessen. Traffic jams will occur less frequently, and we as passengers will have extra time for interfacing with our phones, computers and other people. Or just relaxing whilst being transported, as if on a train.

These are the profound, paradigm-shifting effects of the migration to autonomous vehicles. So large that they will change how we view transportation in general, becoming a relatively seamless act as we "transition" from one venue to another without losing our connectivity and focus of thought.

Onramps to autonomy

There are three big trends that are already evident, and that ultimately lead to self-piloting vehicles becoming commonplace: pervasive wireless connectivity, machine learning algorithms and the Internet of Things. The first, wireless, may not be so obvious. We're not talking about the phone or tablet you're carrying, but the car itself.

Going back to General Motors' OnStar system, which was launched in 1996 as a semi-automated, voice-based driver aid service, was the first inkling of things to come. To facilitate OnStar, the vehicle had to have its own cellular connection. This has evolved to pure data-based cell transceivers being built into vehicles, a fairly recent phenomenon. These do not require the vehicle owner to do, well, anything other than just drive. These embedded transceivers are capable of "beaming" onboard data back to the vehicle manufacturer, for any number of purposes including predictive maintenance, marketing and responding in the event of a crash, among others. 

Machine learning comes to your garage

We're hearing a lot about machine learning, which is essentially a piecemeal form of artificial intelligence. In essence, machine learning allows a processing system to make rudimentary decisions on highly specific problems (as opposed to generalized problem solving...data scientists, fire off your corrective memos...). This is ideal for the vehicle environment, where scenarios tend to get repeated, often.

For example, how to keep a car situated between the lines on a road. This area of computer science is evolving at warp speed, and again, taking advantage of the continual evolution of Moore's Law in ever more powerful, smaller and inexpensive processors. 

The rolling Internet of Things

With the advent of embedded cellular data communications appearing in newer car models along with sensors galore, a new vehicle is already part of the IoT. In fact, cars and trucks are fast becoming rolling IoT platforms, to the point where the industry has determined it needs to set standards for how they communicate their telemetry with other passing vehicles and the outside world. The potential benefits of this are vast, and represent a strong step towards eliminating the various problems that have plagued our motoring society for many decades, such as traffic, accidents, breakdowns and wasted energy. 

This paradigm shift will impact everyone

Let's consider how big a change autonomous vehicles will represent to society as a whole: the automobile will no longer occupy huge chunks of our time, since we will be wholly productive (or being entertained, or sleeping) whilst being transported from one place to the next. It will make the act of moving around within regions almost invisible.

Plus existing occupations related to the act of driving will fade and be replaced by new ones, as happened with the shift from horses to horseless caused by the automobile in the first place. Cars will become "plumbing" as we just take it for granted that the infrastructure exists. 

How you can leverage this evolution

If you're operating within a large organization, knowing what's happening with vehicle autonomy -- or as importantly, the aforementioned elements that are making it possible -- could play a key roll in decisions that you make regarding areas such as supply chain management, logistics, and possibly the actual products or services that you provide.

If you are a participant in any of the industries that will be profoundly affecting by the tectonic shift in user and business operations resulting from vehicle autonomy, which include shipping, personal transportation, insurance, vehicle maintenance, petrochemical or electrical energy, and more, it's a good practice to stay on top of these technologies and trends.

Most importantly, think about new offerings that you can bring to market that take advantage of where this, and we, are headed. They could represent the next billion-dollar opportunities. And we're going there, autonomously. 

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