How We Are Disrupting the Automotive Industry

An interesting piece over at the Huffington Post describes a potential disruption to the automotive industry from the growing potential of self-driving cars.

According to the piece, a project at Fort Bragg’s Wounded Warrior complex is making the theory of autonomous vehicles a more practical reality.

“The Wounded Warrior Campus will provide on demand personal transit through autonomous golf carts that operate at a top speed of 8 miles per hours. Soldiers call the vehicles via a cell phone to take them where they need to go. The soldiers get out of the vehicle, which automatically returns itself to the pool to await the next soldier’s call eliminating parking hassles.”

Of course, the US military isn’t the only player in this space.  With their vast stores of mapping data and huge budgets for R&D, it’s no surprise that Google have been looking into cars that drive themselves too. With that kind of clout behind them, driverless cars will surely be a reality – UK road trials are due to take place by the end of this year.

The technology is certainly feasible, and as in the case of the Wounded Warriors complex, there are real-world applications for autonomous vehicles where they make perfect sense.  There is a question mark, however, over the mass-market appeal of a driverless car.

Driving remains, for many, an active (as opposed to passive) experience that they enter into through choice, in the face of already-existing automated alternatives.  For example, thousands of people take to their cars every morning to commute into London when train services would take them wherever they need to go.  The roads are just as prone to delays as the trains are, and there are significant costs attached to car ownership and driving.  The truth is, lots and lots of people just like driving.  

Since it became a possibility for the mass market, driving has represented more than simply transit.  There is an association with values like freedom, exploration, and excitement.  Why else would 17-year-olds throughout the country rush to pass their test as soon as they possibly can?  It’s not a passive choice; driverless technology may struggle to make a case for itself in the face of emotional connections like that.

As well as the emotional challenge, what’s key to the potential mass-market disruption that the Huffington Post article alludes to are factors like cost and convenience.  As mentioned above, automated alternatives to driving already exist.  One of them is 100% ‘on-demand’ too – the taxi.  Buses are extremely good value.  Trains cover long distances much more quickly than cars.

If autonomous cars aren’t actually a viable alternative to driving because of the emotional connection that drivers make to the activity of driving itself (and that, of course, is yet to be seen in practise), then they will need to present a viable alternative to at least one of those other public transport options.