How Will Autonomous Vehicles Shape Our Future?

Self-Driving Technology

Thanks to Tesla, most people are already at least somewhat familiar with self-driving vehicles on the roads. A mere five years ago the Tesla Autopilot was introduced as the first commercially produced advanced autopilot system for cars. To date, the company has sold well in excess of 700,000 vehicles and established autonomous cars as the next big trend that will eventually go mainstream. Let’s examine what types of self-driving technologies are being developed and how those technologies are poised to truly revolutionize vehicle ownership.

The Long Haul

Just weeks ago Plus.ai (a Silicon Valley startup) announced the completion of the first-ever fully automated cross-country freight haul in history. It took less than 3 days for the self-driving truck to make the 2,800 mile distance from Tulare, California all the way to Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The only stops it made along the way were for refueling and the government mandated rests that all truck drivers are required to make. For safety reasons there was a driver and engineer in the cab of the truck, although Plus.ai claims the autopilot had zero “disengagements”, or moments where the autopilot system had to be shut off due to an unforeseen issue. So, what was the precious cargo on this historic delivery? Butter. Forty thousand pounds of it, in fact. A humble beginning to the introduction of automated freight delivery, but the implications are profound. According to Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities, an investment firm, “10 to 15 different companies are working on autonomous freight delivery… with an expected commercial rollout in 2022.”

Taking to the Sky

Elsewhere in California, a company called Skyryse is building the tools to convert helicopters into self-flying vehicles. Rather than building their own autonomous vehicles from the ground up, they are working on a kit that may be retrofitted onto existing aircraft. It will support at least two flight modules, one being a fully-autonomous suite of tools that manage everything from takeoff to touchdown. The other is a more constrained system likened to cruise control on an automobile, allowing the pilot to retain ultimate command of the helicopter. Working alongside the helicopter are “smart helipads” equipped with an array of sensors for ground-level wind speed, weather conditions, or other low-flying objects such as birds or drones. It also features automated emergency handling in the event of an issue such as equipment failure. All of this is backed by powerful software that is fully integrated with existing FAA networks and traffic control systems for safety and ease of use.

Street-Legal

On December 17th, 2019, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles voted to allow autonomous delivery and cargo vehicles on the streets for commercial and testing purposes. These vehicles can weigh up to 10,000 pounds which will enable everything from grocery and food delivery to cargo carrying. They can be purpose-built autonomous vehicles or even retrofitted passenger cars, allowing smaller companies a chance to break into the market. There are a wide range of licenses, permits, and regulations companies must navigate, but 65 already have at least some form of autonomous vehicle licensing in California so far.

Autonomous Vehicles and You

So what does the implementation of all this technology, software, and legislation mean for the average person? It could have profound impacts on the future of many jobs, including pizza delivery drivers, postal and package couriers, truck and taxi drivers, helicopter pilots, construction equipment operators, and more. Imagine retrofitting your taxi or personal vehicle into a self-driving car so it can go make you money while you pursue other opportunities. Even behind the scenes, the field of software engineering is flourishing with a growth rate of 26% across America. This reflects the desire and demand many Americans feel for products and services foundationally reliant on software. There is currently a huge push to get this technology not only on the road, but in the pockets of Americans across the country.

Self-Driving Rideshare

Just a few months ago, Elon Musk (the founder and CEO of Tesla) spoke of his intentions to introduce his own version of an autonomous ride-hailing service to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft. Presumably through a similar phone app, Tesla owners will be able to coordinate rideshares and earn extra income during downtime, such as while they sleep or when they’re at the office. Elon even mentions owning and managing a “fleet” of Teslas, targeting those who want to go all-in on the automated money-maker. Teslas come equipped with an array of interior and exterior cameras by default, allowing for the saving and reviewing of footage in case of damage or vandalism to the vehicle. And, according to Musk, Tesla cars already come with all the requisite hardware installed for ridesharing; it’s “just a matter of finishing the software and going through regulatory approval”. 

Currently, all Tesla vehicles come equipped with an automated ‘driver assist’ which handles things such as matching speed to traffic conditions, keeping within or changing lanes, self-parking, summoning, and entering and exiting freeways. With the flip of a switch, Musk could enable “full-self driving capabilities” for Teslas already on the streets today. What’s stopping him? He just isn’t comfortable with it yet, saying they need a few “billion miles of experience” in order to fine tune the system’s self-driving capabilities.

Small Business, Big Implications

Not only is the introduction of these sorts of automated services great for Tesla owners, they also signal the opening of a new market for contracting out automated vehicles in general. There will inevitably be competition as companies scramble to fill the various niches that emerge. It’s not hard to imagine individuals operating and leasing fleets to larger companies for courier or cargo work, or managing squads of food delivery bots on college campuses. Even software development companies could emerge that create specifically tailored apps and interfaces for the purpose of tracking and leasing fleets. There are so many opportunities in this new market, both foreseen and unforeseen. One thing is clear, however. The rise of automated vehicles will fundamentally change how people view car ownership.

Vehicles are so critical to the lives of Americans, but they spend the vast majority of the time sitting idle in a driveway. Through these potential apps and services, people will be able to use their cars (and helicopters!) as revenue generators rather than money sinks. This opens the door to a whole new career path for many Americans and can potentially free up their time for family, hobbies, or other business interests. For the more frugal amongst us or for those of us who already like our jobs, contracting your car out on the side could provide an extra layer of income as a safety net or means to an early retirement. It is certainly exciting to speculate on what the future of autonomous vehicles hold, and I suspect we won’t have to speculate for long.

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At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers.

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