Why driverless cars are the death knell for traditional manufacturers

Cars are expensive, and mostly sit idle. They are also risky and usually a pain to drive in traffic. Socially, the cost of accident damage and injury and congestion is in the trillions of dollars world-wide. So why do people buy cars?

As a status symbol. For freedom. To express who they are. To carry their stuff around. For privacy. For the pleasure of driving (on the open road — rarely in city traffic, where we are most of the time). Oh, and for convenience of transport.

These drivers of ownership are changing, as young people rely more on their technology to satisfy many of these needs. When young people travel, they use their parents’ car, or share, or even public transport. Owning the car is no longer such a big deal. As Uber, Lyft, Ingogo and others broaden the depth of their services, owning will become even less of an issue.

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(Image: How we see a car when it is actually being useful. It’s not all that appealing.)

Driverless technology just extends this trend to its logical conclusion: ringing the death knell on traditional automotive, which is geared to style and features and obsolescence and selling more to make more profit.

Toyota and BMW have both made it plain why they are not seeking to make their cars fully automated (even though they could): “because it takes away all the fun”. They know that once the emotional drivers are removed, the car becomes a taxi. When was the last time you cared about the style and features in your taxi?

Of course some people will always want to drive, as some people still like to ride horses. But when it comes to transport, what’s better than having the right car (small town car, fancy car for a hot date, van, people mover, ute, etc.) delivered to you within 2–5 minutes of order and having it take you where you want to go without having to think about parking or even paying (it’s automatic too). Just get in, do whatever you want to do while you travel, and get out.

This transport service model requires you to make the least number of cars needed to deliver the service — the exact opposite of the current business model.

It also requires you to clean, maintain, repair, refurbish and recycle many different types of vehicles — so you need a very flexible plant that not only assembles cars, but can perform all these other functions too. So you will have to move away from production lines, to fully automated general purpose production cells using robots — a topic for another day. And, as you must provide the facilities where the service is delivered, it will be immune from import competition. It’s also highly sustainable, as the transport service provider must manage the vehicle during its whole life-cycle, ensuring least use of resources and least cost.

The vehicles will need to last as long as possible and be cheap and easy to build and maintain (hence electric) and consumers will want to be able to update the interior easily to keep it fresh. That will mean separating the carrying compartment from the drive chassis. The carrying compartment only needs comfortable seats and some screens. Once the tech is proven (ten years tops), it does not need a steering wheel, brake pedal, accelerator or instrument panel — as Google has already shown.

And in 30 years when all vehicles are driverless, you’ll be able to dispense with all the passive safety equipment — airbags, seat belts, minimal-intrusion cabins (safety cages/cells), front and rear crumple zones and anti-intrusion beams, energy-absorbing steering columns, head impact protection, and seats to counter whiplash — reducing weight and cost enormously.

In separating the drive chassis and carrying pod, you can also switch from passenger pods to freight pods, so you can move freight at night and people during the day — with several different size chassis for different jobs.

Even though the look of your taxi is not so important, there is no reason why the passenger pods cannot be made to look stunning inside and out, and be easier and cheaper to update than the whole car. As for style, who better than Apple?

No wonder Dan Akerson, retired chief executive officer of General Motors, recently said Apple should “steer clear of the business of making cars”. It is likely that Apple (if it decides to get into the transport business) — and of course Google and Tesla and the other tech companies — will understand this new business model much sooner than the car companies.

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