Self-driving cars put the ‘auto’ in automobile
Recent life-changing innovations have conditioned us to rapid change. But one universal element of daily life has remained stubbornly stagnant: revolutionary advances in transportation are few and far between. It’s been 200 years since the introduction of mechanized rail, and 100 since cars became mainstream. Now we are on the threshold of another great change.
If horses and trains drove the 19th century, and human-operated, internal combustion cars drove the 20th, the 21st will drive itself – and massively transform our lives in the process.
Call it the autonomous transportation economy.
Among the many unforeseen consequences of the information revolution has been the confluence of once-neatly siloed industries. Think phones, computers, newspapers, music players, music distributors, software, maps, compasses and handheld video games.
In 1990, no one could have conceived a single device that would replace them all, let alone do more. Now, you probably have one in your pocket.
Maps were Google’s first bridge from the digital world to the physical world, but in recent years the search giant has recruited some of the best available talent to build driverless cars. The program began by retrofitting Priuses and Lexuses, but last year, Google unveiled a vehicle all its own that lacked a steering wheel or pedals.
Google’s ambition for transformation, its treasure trove of data, and its large war chest make it a flagship entrant into the autonomous transportation economy.
The first all-electric car company, Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk have made a habit of silencing skeptics. Aside from building a vehicle that has won near-universal acclaim for its esthetics and performance, Tesla has done more than proven the appeal of electric drive. It has been the first automaker to look at user interface through the eyes of a software company, the first to enable over-the-air updates (sometimes replacing costly recalls), and, with its latest offering, the first to provide an “autopilot” function for autonomous highway driving. The trifecta of electric, connected and autonomous will characterize the vehicles of the future.
Many consider Uber a taxi killer. In fact, what Uber is really killing is the under-utilization of cars. For most, the first Uber experience replaced a cab ride. But subsequent trips replaced driving.
Uber is introducing a world in which cars are transportation-as-a-service, and consumers are understanding that the gains can be manifold. Financier Jeffrey Gundlach recently discovered he could save “days a week” by getting work done while someone else drove. Uber is demonstrating that future transportation won’t rely just on new products, but on new business models. The new Uber Advanced Technologies Center at Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center is a clear indication the company has set its sights on a future business where robots do the driving.
Rather than buying your next car at an Apple Store, you might expect that in a few years your iPhone will be capable of summoning an Apple-enabled “office on wheels” to take you to your next meeting. Cars of the future will be defined less on driving performance and more on user experience. Inspiring design and intuitive user interface are Apple hallmarks – and precisely what will matter in this new world.
Within reach is the following: the end of automobile accidents, traffic, impaired driving, looking for parking — and the beginning of a world in which transit seamlessly integrates into our lives.
Michael J. Granoff is president and founder of Maniv Energy Capital, which invests in early-stage transportation and energy companies. Olaf Sakkers is an associate at Maniv Energy Capital.