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Woman passenger sitting in the backseat and  selects a route when her self-driving car rides on the highway.
Woman passenger sitting in the backseat and selects a route when her self-driving car rides on the highway.

If Self-Driving Cars Become the Norm, What Will It Feel Like?

Already, Millennials are more likely than their parents to see transportation as simply a means to an end

Recently, Jay Richards interviewed Bryan Mistele, founder and CEO of INRIX, on the non-fiction future of the self-driving car. INRIX provides data systems for analyzing traffic issues relevant to self-driving (autonomous) vehicles. He sees a bright future, amid many misconceptions:

From the interview:

Jay Richards: What do you think is the key misconception that people have about this technology?

Bryan Mistele: I think the biggest misconception is that it’s just about autonomous vehicles. That you’ll go to a dealer, you’ll buy an autonomous vehicle. That’s not really the vision of what people in the industry are pursuing. It’s about what we call the ACES, Autonomous Connected, Electric, and Shared, all working together to deliver, basically, mobility as a service.

Certainly “Shared” is already here. You look at the number of trips that are happening by shared vehicles, that’s already increasing. Electric vehicles, you have almost every single automotive manufacturer shipping in electric vehicles, at some point in the next 18 months.

Then connected vehicles, you already have about 25% of vehicles on the road today. Communicating from the vehicle to the cloud, transmitting and receiving information.

Autonomous will actually be the last of the four trends, in terms of mass adoption.

Jay Richards: How do you anticipate us experiencing this? Because I talked to a lot of people about this. The problem is the language, “autonomous vehicles.” We’ve all seen some movie in which a car gets away from its owner or something like that. So that’s what people are imagining. How are we actually likely to experience this?

Bryan Mistele: It’s likely just an automated Uber. So, when you go from point A to point B in an urban area, it’ll basically take you from where you are to where you need to go. Primarily, initially, in the major urban area. So New York, San Francisco, that are well mapped, well defined problems. It’ll be a long time until you have vehicles that can drive 100% of the time, in any conditions, gravel road, things like that.

Note: One problem with imagining a likely future is that, as Jonathan Bartlett pointed out recently here at Mind Matters News, public awareness is clouded by hype from entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who lead the public to believe that self-driving cars are just around the corner. Musk recently lost a case in a German court, which directed him to quit claiming that his vehicles are “autonomous.”

There are five levels of self-driving (autonomy) recognized by the Society of Automotive Engineers. According to Bartlett, who works in the industry, Musk’s cars are probably a high-level Level 2 or a low-level Level 3. In the United States, Musk has also had to walk back dramatic “self-driving” claims about a robo-taxi fleet he was about to launch. Absent critical questions from media, the public is understandably confused about where we are with autonomous vehicles.

Jay Richards: So what about long haul trucking?

Bryan Mistele: I think actually that’s one of the most promising opportunities. Basically, you already have a couple of different companies that are focused on delivering long haul trucks, autonomously, across the country. And then, when they get into an urban area, a driver, or even a remote drone pilot, will take it into the loading dock. I think that you’ll see [them] in the next two to three years, in production.

Jay Richards: And then also, dedicated routes. Would you expect that?

Bryan Mistele: Dedicated routes, in fact, you already have today, autonomous shuttles in about 12 different cities, in the United States. And you have fully autonomous vehicles in retirement communities, in Florida for instance, where they’re basically taking retirees around the community. Again, very small, well mapped, well understood problem.

Note: At least one star self-driving truck firm was shuttered recently and the CEO, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, fingered a cause: Machine learning “doesn’t live up to the hype.” But he may have moved too far, too fast. Many sources see dedicated routes as the logical next step because, apart from anything else, self-driving cars might work better if they are spared challenges from human drivers.

Jay Richards: Is this going to be a benefit to humanity, and to the United States, ultimately?

Bryan Mistele: Yes, certainly, because it reduces the cost of transportation. It, ultimately, is safer. About 75% of accidents are human caused, or human error. So, you end up with safer transportation, you end up with more convenient, more cost effective, transportation.

Jay Richards: We also have all these cars, that most of the time aren’t doing anything. That’s some kind of waste. I really do think the human cost, in terms of death, that’s the biggie. That’s the most important one. But just the sheer waste of resources in cars, that are, most of the time, not doing anything, I think is a big deal too.

Bryan Mistele: For sure. Think about your urban area. You have parking garages every block, or every other block. You’ve got on-street parking. If you can basically increase the utilization of a car, by having it shared, and having it be autonomous, you can dramatically change the landscape of the city, and have much more effective land use, much more throughput, in terms of the roads themselves.

Many people may be thinking along these lines, perhaps without really knowing it. One of the most significant things Mistele revealed at COSM 2019, for the long term, is that Millennials don’t see the car as a badge of freedom, the way their parents and grandparents did:

In a panel discussion at the COSM Technology Summit, Bryan Mistele, CEO of automotive at a company Inrix, pointed out that Millennials are less likely to have driver’s licences than previous generations, only 71% had them by age 18. “To them, mobility is just a means to an end,” he said.

Denyse O’Leary, “Have Millennials broken up with America’s car culture?” at Mind Matters News

Other sources have noted that car purchases in that age group have been dropping, perhaps because ride hailing often beats the costs and risks of ownership and more people work and shop at home via the internet. This trend holds across Canada, Germany, Japan, and South Korea as well. Mistele thinks that the Millennials’ approach to cars (a service rather than a freedom) will make viable autonomous vehicles much easier to accept.

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If Self-Driving Cars Become the Norm, What Will It Feel Like?