Self-driving cars will change millions of people's lives for the better by providing independence and mobility to those who can't drive because of physical limitations or age. The technology will allow more people to live on their own terms and participate in what the most of us consider everyday life.
"Autonomy promises better mobility and safety for more people at a lower cost," Larry Burns, retired General Motors chief of R&D and strategic planning, writes in the first issue of Autonomous Vehicle Engineering, a new publication by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Autonomous vehicles could also lead to greater demand for vehicles, as the population of people who can use them expands from those of driving age to virtually anybody who can use an app.
Like phone companies before the iPhone was introduced, automakers are living through the last moments before their industry changes fundamentally and forever.
The technology is arriving just in time, said Eric Noble, president of product development consultant The Carlab in Orange, Calif.
"Autonomy is good for society. It will extend the time of driving and independent living for the largest generation ever: the baby boom," Noble said. "The technology aligns perfectly with our demographic needs. Baby boomers had to take the keys when their parents could no longer drive. Autonomy allows them to postpone that moment in their own lives, and extends their working life."
Most forecasts say that totally autonomous vehicles won't be widespread until around 2030, but the technology's early steps are already showing what's possible. General Motors' Cadillac Super Cruise does nearly all the driving on limited access highways, where there are no intersections or traffic lights. Self-driving taxi service Voyage operates autonomous Ford Fusions in the Villages, a retirement community near San Jose, Calif. Real estate developer Bedrock has tested autonomous employee shuttles employees in downtown Detroit.
It's easier to provide autonomy in limited areas like a gated community or around a downtown office area, because there are fewer variables to deal with.
"The technology is ideal for areas that are digitally mapped in detail," said Joe Phillippi, principal of Autotrends Consulting. "It will take time for autonomy to penetrate into the deep suburbs and countryside."
The way automakers sell and service vehicles will change, too. Ride-sharing, in which people summon a vehicle when they need it, could keep vehicles in service for more hours every day than single-owner personal vehicles.
"There's an opportunity for the number of vehicles on the road to stay the same or increase as we open up the number of people who can use them" IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said.
Suddenly everybody from a 6-year-old being shuttled to Cub Scouts to my 94-year-old mother is a potential customer.
"Car will be used for more hours every day," Brinley said. "They'll wear out faster and need repairs and replacement more frequently."
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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