They were meant to be here by now.
We’ve all heard the self-driving scenario where the autonomous car drops mum and dad at work, swings back to get the kids for school and then parks up while it waits for the afternoon summons. No more stress for us driving in peak-hour traffic, no crashes triggering human tragedy, no fighting for parking at crowded destinations. Your own private shuttle of serenity.
They were meant to be in our driveways by now.
BMW began testing driverless systems in 2005. In 2007, Jeremy Clarkson sat in a BMW that lapped the Top Gear test track at pace without his help. In 2011, BMW demonstrated self-driving technology to journalists at the challenging Laguna Seca circuit, and in 2014 the company revealed a self-driving 235i that could drift.
Most of the big brands have similar self-driving stories. Audi, for example, sent an autonomous TT up the Pikes Peak hillclimb course at close to race pace in 2011. In 2017, Mercedes-Benz and Bosch teamed up to demonstrate driverless car parking in real-life traffic. It felt like our self-driving future was fast approaching.
Since then, car companies across the world are backpedalling on timelines, but they still claim to be committed to a future where we no longer need a steering wheel or pedals. A survey by Emerj Research last year revealed that the world’s top carmakers believe fully autonomous cars will hit our roads sometime between 2025 and 2030.
Ford, for example, is spending $5.1 billion on autonomous vehicle R&D between 2019 and 2023, yet in late-2019 Ford CEO Jim Hackett said “we overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles”. Hackett should know because he headed the company’s autonomous vehicle division before he became CEO. Hackett also said that when the self-driving car does arrive “its application will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex”.
I believe we will not see self-driving cars on our roads en masse before 2050. I’m talking proper Level 5 autonomy that requires no human intervention or even human oversight from start to finish. We’ve all been sold a pup by overly ambitious car company execs. Or perhaps there’s a global public/private conspiracy keeping this autonomous utopia at bay?
Elon Musk recently boasted that Tesla will launch Full Self Driving (FSD) in 2021. "I am extremely confident of achieving full autonomy and releasing it to the Tesla customer base next year," Musk said in December 2020. He may believe that, but he also believed his Cybertruck’s glass was bulletproof.
Firstly, let’s ignore the fact that Tesla is barely at Level 2 autonomy according to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ globally agreed standard (handy infogram here).
Let’s also ignore the 716 legal barriers preventing autonomous cars from driving on Australian roads.
Lastly, let’s assume autonomous cars can navigate the dozens of unpredictable road-going threats with 100 per cent safety such as older human-controlled cars, frequently stopping buses, articulated trucks swinging left from the right lane, pedestrians on phones, crazy cyclist couriers, lane-splitting motorcyclists, roadworks, school crossings, animals, debris, drunks and more.
Let’s assume the autonomous car can do all that and look instead at the bigger picture.
If you think the internet revolutionised the way we shop, the way we get news and the way we watch TV, you’re right. But that is small fry compared to what autonomous vehicles will do to the world we know. Autonomy will end car ownership, bring multinational companies to their knees, and result in a global unemployment pandemic.
To understand why let's look more closely at how autonomous vehicles will change the world around them.
According to Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 findings, “cars typically sit idle 95 per cent of the time”. So why bother owning such an expensive asset when instead you can embrace Mobility as a Service (MaaS)?
Sure, rich individuals will waste their money owning a private self-driving car because of ego, but the vast majority will time-share in a microfleet or subscribe to a macrofleet, both of which bring two big advantages: reduced cost per person and vehicle type flexibility.
Microfleets will be a handful of cars shared between 10–12 houses or an apartment block. This spreads the cost of ownership across more shareholders and makes logistical sense because the start or end of most journeys will be geographically similar. Owners would pre-book journeys or call for cars on demand via a smartphone app. Most of the cars will be single or two-seaters because one- and two-person trips make up 90 per cent of our journeys. Larger cars will be available to order for when you need more seats.
Macrofleets would be run by car brands on a membership structure and independent companies broadly similar to taxis of today. Membership includes a basic amount of kilometres which can be topped up as needed.
Autonomous cars don’t need to sit idle waiting for a driver, so fewer cars could handle more trips. Therefore, demand for new cars will soften considerably and car companies will be forced to reduce production and shutter factories, putting tens of thousands out of work.
Also, sports cars and convertibles would cease to exist, because nobody gets a kick out of driving anymore. Instead, cars would become homogenous, people-moving transport bubbles focused primarily on comfort while shuttling you to your destination.
On a national level, distances travelled would reduce because autonomous cars will chart more efficient journeys, reducing our appetite for fuels and therefore reducing fuel revenue for BP, Shell, Ampol and co. – not to mention all that lost service station revenue from coffee, cold drinks, chocolates, chips, and the other snacks you never knew you needed until you walked in. More cost cuts, more jobs lost.
Autonomous vehicles would end professions like taxi driver, bus driver, truck driver, and courier. There are 15,000 taxi drivers in Australia driving a $3.1 billion industry. Then there are 62,000 Uber drivers, another 50,000 conservatively estimated to work in the bus industry, and 260,000 drivers in the road freight industry.
That’s 387,000 Australians, or roughly 1.5 per cent of our workforce, out of work. By comparison, the shuttering of Australia’s car industry and affected suppliers in 2017/18 cost an estimated 50,000 jobs.
In Joe Biden’s America, the scale is 10 times ours. The USA’s Bureau of Transportation says that 3.6 million people (1.1 per cent of the population) are employed driving trucks, buses and taxis. Bye bye jobs, hello welfare queue. For argument’s sake, let’s extrapolate that percentage across the 7.8 billion humans on planet Earth right now. I’ll save you the maths: it’s 85 million jobs lost/unemployed workers.
Autonomous cars don’t crash (just ask Musk), so why do we need the car insurance industry, valued at $953 billion globally in 2019? More jobs gone. And autonomous cars don’t speed or run red lights or drive drunk, so there goes $534 million in projected revenue for Victoria in 2022, and $651 million in fines revenue for NSW in 2020/21. How do you think our state governments will recoup that lost income? Income tax hikes for those of us still with jobs is my guess.
On the positive side, you’ll never need to fight for a parking space again or pay a parking fine, and we can turn those unsightly parking stations into low-cost, high-rise buildings for all those new welfare cases. You’ll also never wash a car, refuel a car, pay expensive servicing costs, or have to deal with a used car salesman again.
Which reminds me, with all those shiny new subscription services replacing car purchases, Australia’s 3500 car dealerships will also go out of business and tens of thousands more jobs lost, not to mention the $54 billion estimated economic contribution the new car retail industry makes – and $3 billion in tax revenue. No worries, the government can just hike income taxes further to recoup that as well.
Let’s not forget that road trauma will no longer exist: the 1133 Australians who lost their lives on the roads in the last 12 months would still be alive, and our hospitals would have about 40,000 fewer road trauma admissions each year, thus freeing beds for other medical emergencies.
Police would no longer need to man speed cameras or do rego and licence checks. They’d have more time to police real crimes like assaults and burglaries.
One more thing: a study by the University of Michigan suggests that 6–12 per cent of passengers in self-driving cars will experience motion sickness resulting in nausea and possibly vomiting. It found that motion sickness becomes more severe if you undertake activities like reading in a moving car, which is exactly what bored passengers in autonomous cars are likely to do.
Is that the utopia we really want?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.