Speeding on the road to driverless vehicles

A man sits in the drivers seat, reading a book, as a self-driving car takes him to his destination.

Imagine cars and trucks merging into one lane through a construction zone like the halves of a zipper coming together—at 90 miles per hour. Or a business leasing a commercial vehicle that adapts to different uses by swapping modules from various manufacturers.

The coming generations of autonomous vehicles are poised to disrupt the way we think about transportation. Self-driving cars, trucks and drones raise questions about ownership and liability, as humans become passengers rather than drivers.

In Routes to the Future Volume 1: How We'll Get Around UPS explores the future of transportation and the potential for technological, social and commercial disruption in this multi-volume future trends report.

Technology, demographic shifts and a search for solutions to urban congestion are converging to drive the push for autonomous vehicles around the world. Software and hardware are evolving with the sophistication to gather information and make appropriate decisions in real-world driving situations. At the same time, two key segments of the U.S. population are expressing interest in driverless cars: baby boomers, who want to spend less time on the road, and environmentally conscious millennials, who are gravitating to busy urban centers.

Transportation disrupted

When Toyota brought the first self-parking car to market in 2003, the concept of the fully self-driving vehicle moved from science fiction to reality. Now Tesla, Google, Volvo and other automotive and tech companies are racing to offer autonomous driving capability.

How We'll Get Around describes four phases of autonomous vehicles:

  1. Phase I: Right now, we see passive autonomous driving where the car’s sensors warn the driver of inadvertent lane changes or maintain a safe distance when cruise control is engaged.
  2. Phase II: Higher-end vehicles are already taking over for the driver in limited situations like self-guided parking.
  3. Phase III: In the near future, the car will take over driving completely. The driver can intervene in an emergency.
  4. Phase IV: New cars can function autonomously, with or without a passenger in the vehicle.

One of the biggest benefits of self-driving vehicles is taking the human factor out of the equation. Analysts at KPMG predict 80 percent fewer vehicle accidents by 2040, once self-driving cars become the norm.

This volume raises some of the tougher and more nuanced questions that will likely accompany driverless technology:

  • When a self-driving vehicle is involved in an accident, who’s responsible?
  • Should a self-driving vehicle be programmed to make calculations on property damage or personal injuries when an accident is unavoidable?
  • How will the concepts of vehicle ownership change when we can use an app to summon a self-driving car or commercial vehicle on demand?
  • How will self-driving cars affect auto insurance—and speed limits?
  • How will all of this technology impact traffic congestion and the way we commute?

A lower cost of driving

Autonomous cars may change the very notion of buying and owning a vehicle. If you can request a ride any time you need one, why own a car? Ride hailing firms Uber and Lyft are working with Ford and GM to shape the future of transportation as a service. Maas Global, a Helsinki-based startup, has launched an app to offer mobility as a service, where users pay a fee for any transportation service, including ride-sharing in cars and bicycles, public transport and food and grocery deliveries.

For commercial vehicles, a combination of autonomous and guided operations may prove the most valuable. For instance, a truck could haul goods between cities and then pull into a truck stop outside of town to pick up a driver for “last-mile logistics,” such as backing an 18-wheeler into a loading dock.

Read more about this topic in "Chapter 1: Self-managing vehicles drive new services," from How We"ll Get Around.

Big data driving logistics

Each fully autonomous vehicle is a computer on wheels, its decision-making capability driven by finely tuned algorithms while it hoovers up real-time data on driving and traffic patterns. Over time, smart vehicles will get smarter, and businesses will leverage the power of analytics to diagnose and solve problems before they’re a problem, says Jack Levis, senior director of process management, for UPS.

On-board telematics systems will play an even bigger role, routing delivery trucks to the most efficient path. Eventually the systems will be able to predict the best way to move any parcel at any time, avoiding traffic and weather delays and reducing delivery times.

To speed traffic, reduce traffic congestion, and reduce accidents, smart city systems will use street lights that monitor traffic, adjust traffic lights and communicate with vehicles. MIT researchers are experimenting with “slotting” traffic, moving traffic in groups through intersections rather than one at a time to tackle gridlock.

The flood of data from connected, or "quantified," vehicles can help cities uncover patterns to augment traffic planners, law enforcement, health care workers and even real estate development.

Read more about this topic in Jack Levis's article "How Analytics Will Drive the Logistics of the Future," from How We"ll Get Around.

Vehicles go modular

The way we design, purchase and use vehicles will change as cars and trucks become more connected. Here’s a look at some of the ways vehicles will become flexible and, therefore, more functional.

  • Mix-and-match cars: As the lines between domestic and commercial uses blur, families and businesses may use vehicles that adapt to different uses by swapping modules, say from carrying people to carrying cargo. Buyers can design and purchase vehicles and modules they need, becoming their own automotive engineers.
  • Mobility by the minute: Modular vehicles enable transportation as a service, as users pay for only the time they use the car. With the flood of data from connected vehicles, companies could charge for use based on the amount of energy consumed in electric vehicles.
  • Plugged-in smart cars: Developing battery technology will boost the adoption of electric vehicles and eventually play a role in managing the smart energy grid, balancing the variable energy flow from solar and wind sources.

Read more about this topic in "Chapter 2: Vehicles Get Modular," from How We"ll Get Around.

Logistics disruption

Self-driving vehicles will transform the way businesses and services connect with their customers and users.

Industrial distribution is already being transformed by big data, and self-driving vehicles will boost efficiency even more. Modular, self-driving vehicles can adapt to different uses, reducing operating and ownership costs and improving delivery schedules. In Australia, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto is using self-driving trucks at two iron ore mines, reducing costs and accidents.

Healthcare services would be transformed with faster emergency response times and autonomous vehicles that transport patients to medical appoints or deliver medication and supplies.

For industrial and retail sellers, self-driving vehicles can make faster deliveries, guided by more accurate maps that know the location and distance between homes or loading docks. The vehicle could find buyers anywhere, guided by GPS data from the consumer’s mobile device.

Join the conversation on key trends shaping the future for businesses in the coming decades.

Download routes to the future Vol. 1, How we"ll get around.

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