While all eyes were firmly affixed to the latest spasms in an already convulsive Presidential primary process, a far more important story squeaked by garnering little attention.
Fiat-Chrysler and Google announced plans to collaborate on the development of driverless vehicles; specifically, minivans. Under terms of the deal, Google isn’t obligated to share the technological specifics with Fiat-Chrysler.
Someday, when kids in schools learn about the late 20-teens and early 2020s, they’ll gloss over Trump, #NeverTrump, Hillary, and The Bern, much in the same way Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox are glossed over as candidates for the White House in 1920. (Doubt it? Ask someone which of the two won that election). The novelty of the privately owned and operated automobile will be what they study in detail.
As automobiles effected the demise of covered wagons and the horse and buggy, driverless – or autonomous – cars will reshape American life in deep and irreparable ways.
The Fiat-Chrysler/Google foray is compelling for two reasons:
– It marks the transition of “tech” companies into major league automotive industry players. Yes, it’s conceivable that someday, instead of shopping for a BMW or Mazda, consumers might instead buy a Google, Apple, or Microsoft vehicle.
– By using minivans as their starting point, Fiat-Chrysler and Google are positioning themselves to introduce a driverless product that, if tied in with things like Uber and Lyft, could completely change the commuter transportation business model.
If the day is coming – and for populous parts of America it seems to be that way – in which commuters use an app to request a ride someplace, and then an autonomous machine arrives to facilitate it, the very idea of private vehicle ownership may become a niche enjoyed by the wealthy and hard core automotive enthusiasts. (Rush’s “Red Barchetta” comes to mind”. Shade tree mechanics and casual owners of old-fashioned steering wheeled four wheelers simply might not exist outside rural areas and upscale neighborhoods).
Who’s going to own the fleets of vehicles carrying passengers – and no doubt products – from point A to point B on demand?
The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that large companies will assume that role. Maybe in some cases. it’s compelling to picture a fleet of Wal-Mart or Target vehicles ferrying retail purchases to on-line shoppers, or a rental car outfit like Hertz or Enterprise offering an autonomous vehicle option. Amazon already delivers using drivered vans in some areas.
Individuals and/or small firms could operate fleets of driverless cars, too. A local restaurant or bar could keep one or two machines on hand to service patrons willing to pay a little extra for the convenience. A physician or dentist could offer the same for patients. A bed and breakfast could pick travelers up from the airport and deliver them to their stay using a driverless car.
Government regulation will ultimately determine who gets to operate driverless vehicles, who gets to use them, and who doesn’t.
Municipal and state governments stand to lose lots of revenue once cars drive themselves. A machine that understands the speed limit and strictly adheres to it won’t produce a speeding ticket. Computers behind the wheel won’t play the odds with a yellow light and accelerate to zoom through before it turns red. If the machine drives itself, it doesn’t matter whether the occupants have had too much to drink – in fact they could drink while the vehicle drives for them. Microprocessors can’t become intoxicated.
Absent revenue from traffic violations, governments will look towards other ways to make up the loss. Permits, fees, licensing requirements, and compliance requirements to operate an autonomous vehicle will outpace those of drivered vehicles. Where the consumer base can absorb these expenses, driverless vehicles will flourish. Where the consumer base can’t, they won’t. Wealthier areas will have autonomous rides, poorer and more rural areas won’t.
These are just a few observations of a world with driverless vehicles. There are dozens more, most of which can’t be predicted. It’s going to get very interesting sooner than we think.