The digital revolution has affected the auto industry in many ways, but perhaps one of the most exciting and potentially cataclysmic changes currently taking place is the development of automated vehicle technology. Up until the late 1970s, automated cars, or ‘robo-cars’ as they are otherwise known, only existed within the realms of science fiction. Fast forward to today and some serious advances have been made in perfecting the technology. In fact, during a recent visit to Silicon Valley I was lucky enough to see a Google autonomous car driving right beside me, so it won’t be long before they become a familiar sight on the roads of the world’s major cities.
Volvo for example, have stated that they aim to have 100 automated cars on the roads of Gothenburg by as early as next year, while Tesla have already released their auto-pilot software and plan to offer their customers the full self-driving experience by 2018. And let’s not forget Ford, who have recently tripled their investment in semi-automated systems in order to compete with technology behemoths such as Google ( who just spun out its self driving unit into a separate company called Waymo ) and Apple (who recently confirmed that they are working on an electric iCar to rival Tesla). However, there’s a good argument to suggest that the current leaders in the car industry are Daimler, who have been implementing a similar autopilot technology to that of Tesla in high traffic situations for quite some time. But fundamentally the issue boils down to are the car companies going to build a better car or are the computer companies going to build a better computer and put it on wheels. From what I have seen in the Valley my view is that that the computer companies will win this battle!
Companies such as Uber are also getting involved, having recently completed their first successful 120-mile delivery using a self-driving truck – it was 50,000 cans of Beer just in case you are wondering what they delivered! Industry experts such as Brad Templeton argue that as automated vehicles become more common, car sharing will increasingly start to become the norm. So although Uber may be behind in terms of the technology when you compare them to companies such as Google, they are undoubtedly the innovators when it comes to capitalising on the concept of car sharing. They have already started picking up passengers in Pittsburgh with their self-driving cars – although there is a driver sitting in the car so that the customers feel more comfortable!
So it’s clear that robo-cars are no longer confined to the realms of science fiction, they are very much a tangible reality. Astro Teller, director of ‘X’ (formally ‘Google X’) recently posed the following question “Is there a scenario in the future that doesn’t involve self-driving cars? No. So let’s just do it”, and I’m inclined to agree with him. So, if car/tyre companies wish to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, then such technology needs to be embraced and utilised because progression in this area isn’t going to stop to allow those who aren’t already doing so to ‘catch up’.
There are also many benefits to using automated vehicles. Firstly, energy consumption and CO2 emissions will be reduced dramatically, which would have a significant impact on the environment and would perhaps even contribute towards slowing down climate change. Robo-cars would also provide a safer and more efficient driving experience because unlike human drivers, self-driving systems aren’t affected by distractions or ill health, and most significantly of all, robots don’t drink alcohol, which is one of the leading causes of road traffic accidents. In fact, statistics suggest that on average around 3,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year in drink drive collisions in the UK alone, and such accidents could be all but eradicated when robo-cars start to outnumber human drivers.
This technology is equally positive for the tyre industry because put simply, automated cars will increase mobility. Whilst there will be less cars in parking lots there will be more cars around as demand for mobility will increase. As such demand for tyres will increase but it does beg the question who will be the new customer for the tyres? Just imagine a world where driving on demand was accessible to everyone, where you could use your phone to order any car of your choice that perfectly suited your needs in that moment, all in a matter of mere seconds. This is a concept that appeals directly to the younger generations whose attitude towards ownership is completely different to that of their parents’. They don’t think about what car might suit their needs tomorrow, they only think what car will suit their needs today.
Of course, there are some drawbacks; In 2015, hackers worked out how to cut the transmission of a Jeep being driven at speed miles away — sparking a recall of 1.4 million cars. Autonomous vehicles will need a high level of connectivity in order to detect each other: vehicle-to-vehicle communication which — if hacked by terrorists — could cause carnage. Cyber experts routinely talk of “ransomware” attacks in which driverless cars will be hijacked, with a ransom demanded to avert disaster. But I for one think that the pros far outweigh the cons, and what’s truly exciting is that we aren’t even close to unlocking this technology’s full potential.