It’s 2025 and driverless cars still aren’t zooming around everywhere. Where are the chilled out passengers on their phones, or napping, as an invisible “driver” navigates a crowded intersection?
They’re still mostly stuck in the backseat as a human driver shuttles them around. They’re likely in a highly automated and autonomous-capable vehicle, but a human is still there monitoring the machine. That doesn’t mean robo-vehicles aren’t on the road. Instead they’re working behind the scenes. They’re picking up our groceries, filling trucks with our endless online shopping purchases, and hauling crates of produce across the country.
The pandemic made us more comfortable with the idea of autonomous vehicles, but most industry experts still predict a slow transition to their widespread adoption in the U.S. When you’re avoiding exposure to a deadly disease, perhaps a driverless robotaxi, like the Waymo One service in suburban Phoenix, looks more attractive. But autonomous tech and testing regulations won’t accelerate just because of sudden mainstream acceptance and new social distancing norms.
Motional, the new brand from self-driving startup Aptiv and Hyundai, asked just over 1,000 U.S. adults in July about autonomous vehicle (AV) perception. More than 60 percent said AVs “are the way of the future.” A quarter of those surveyed said they are interested in experiencing the tech regularly. A year ago, the American Automobile Association (AAA) surveyed a similarly sized group of Americans and found 71 percent were afraid to ride in a self-driving car. (Note: How the two groups’ demographics compare is unknown.)
The next five years will likely continue to shift and refocus how we think about self-driving technology. While self-driving ride-shares won’t be the norm, more people will have experienced autonomy on the road. Motional CEO Karl Iagnemma thinks that by 2025, “if you haven’t taken a driverless journey you will know someone who has.”
The lingering effects of the pandemic will change our definition of safety. In addition to a crash-free car ride, users will also want a sanitary experience, Iagnemma pointed out. Any AV options have to “give riders confidence and [a feeling] that they have some control over their environment.”
Frank Menchaca, chief growth officer at the automotive engineering group SAE International, echoed that cleanliness is a new concern that will carry on into AV design, especially for shared rides. “Sanitization rules need to be enforced,” he said.
The partitions popular in Lyft and Uber vehicles now will become a way to keep passengers separated in shared autonomous vehicles, like Cruise’s self-driving Origin shuttle unveiled just months before the outbreak.
Anthony Townsend, author of the recently released book, Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, is thinking beyond personal travel. Instead, he expects autonomy will push freight and delivery.
“There’s consumer demand for contactless delivery and it will persist for a long time,” he said in a conversation shortly after his book came out in June. Ecommerce is blowing up right now, so instead of figuring out how to move humans in a robo-car, “scaling the logistics of moving all that material that’s safe, reliable and cost-effective demands automation,” he noted.
Amazon appears to have bought self-driving startup Zoox for this very reason: to automate the process of getting all those online orders to shoppers’ front doors. For Townsend, an urban tech researcher at Cornell University’s New York City campus, Cornell Tech, “this is the shoe dropping” on Amazon taking over cities.
The takeover goes beyond seeing Amazon delivery vans everywhere. Amazon is overrunning the mail system, slowly creeping onto curb space with delivery robots, shutting down local retailers, expanding in the grocery store space, and building huge physical plants that require staggering energy resources. Amazon shipped 5 billion items in 2017, Townsend wrote in his book. During a delivery-dependent pandemic, that number in 2020 can only go up.
That’s not because we’re hopping in our self-driving Teslas, but because Amazon is using a self-driving truck to bring us that bathrobe we ordered online.
Menchaca, from SAE International, also sees automation as more important for trucking, online shopping, and work-from-home culture. “We have to accept the premise that people are going to be reluctant to do a lot of shopping in physical stores,” he said. The pressure is on to ramp up ecommerce delivery operations.
Katrin Zimmermann, managing director of auto industry managing consultancy firm TLGG Consulting, also sees autonomous delivery catching on before personal mobility. “Autonomy will become part of our daily lives,” she predicted. That’s not because we’re hopping in our self-driving Teslas, but because Amazon is using a self-driving truck to bring us that bathrobe we ordered online.
Dylan Jones, who heads design firm Gensler’s mobility lab, sees flying taxis like Uber Air as a likely transportation alternative as we wait for AVs to replace our rides. Eventually Uber’s small, four-passenger electric helicopter-like crafts that fly at low altitude will be automated, but to begin, there’ll be a pilot. Uber expects to have aerial ride-sharing available in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne by 2023. Uber says it’ll start with each mile costing passengers $5.73, but eventually it will get airfare down to just under $2 per mile. So an 86-mile flight from Sacramento to San Francisco would be about $150. A similar flight on United Airlines can range from $150 to $250.
An air taxi airport concept.
A new way to get around.
Access to air taxis will let people who can afford them work from home, wherever that may be, and still go in for the occasional in-person meeting. With the option to fly for the occasional commute, the pressure to live closer to the workplace is alleviated for some commuters. When we do begin to regularly use truly self-driving cars, home life may no longer be as focused on access to city centers. You could work in a self-driving car as you head into the office two hours away.
Townsend, whose book examines different scenarios stemming from autonomous vehicles, said he was once skeptical of predictions that self-driving vehicles would let us live far from urban cores in “self-driving sprawl.” But mix COVID-19 work-from-home restrictions with autonomous options, and “it opens a possibility that wasn’t there.”
Jeff Linnell, CEO of Formant, a robotics management company, said to expect more robots to appear in everyday life in the next few years. That could be a delivery bot or robodog like Boston Dynamics’ Spot. But that doesn’t mean humans are unnecessary. He predicted, “I think this next decade of robots going out into the world and providing services is going to be completely reliant on humans supporting them.”
COVID-19 won’t lead to roads full of robo-cars any time soon. But perhaps by 2025 we’ll have a clearer picture of when that may actually come about.