The Future of Cars

Transport is a crucial part of human existence. It has helped us to grow more interconnected as a race. It started with the wheel and then evolved into animal carts, boats, ships, steamboats, steam engines, motor cars, trains and many other modes of transportation. Now, transportation is in a phase where everyone can own a single or multiple units of various modes of transportation. The rate at which this occurs of different modes of transportation is directly proportional to the cost of an individual unit, and the ease with which it can be operated.

For instance, people own a lot of cars and motorcycles as the cost per unit is low and the ease of use is extremely high. On the other hand, not a lot of people use yachts as the cost per unit is much higher than cars and motorcycles and as additional manpower or training is required to operate a yacht.

However, the future seems to look a little different. With the incumbency of ride-hailing services and the investments in autonomous driving technology by the ride-hailing service companies (Uber and Didi Chuxing), technology companies (Google, Intel and Apple) and automobile companies such as Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, I sense a possible evolution in the way we own and operate transportation units. But the developments that have contributed significantly to me forming this opinion are Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) Waymo, Uber’s self-driving car project, and Tesla’s self-driving car project.

Mercedes Benz’s autonomous vehicle prototype.
Mercedes Benz’s autonomous vehicle prototype.

The Waymo autonomous car project started out as Google self-driving car project in 2009. It started out as a pet project of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. This one of their many moonshots.

Google’s first prototype using the Toyota Prius

Here’s a video by Sergey Brin explaining what their shared perception of a moonshot.

 

It eventually evolved into another division of Google over time. It was called the Google Self-Driving Car project. The Google Self-Driving project was moving at breakneck speeds. They drove 100,00 miles autonomously on public roads using modified Toyota Prius cars. They chose to test in the highways initially as highways are of lesser complexity than city roads. In 2012, they began using modified Lexus RX450h SUVs for the same purpose. At this point, they completed more than that 300,000 miles of testing without any accidents. They eventually developed their own self-driving car units in 2015 that was capable of cruising at 25 mph. They were tested in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas.

Lexus Self-driving Car
Google’s self-driving car

By 2016, they cumulatively completed 2 million miles. And they became a separate company called Waymo.  The fun bit is, Alphabet’s late stage venture capital firm, GV invested $300 million in Uber. Uber then decides to forge a partnership with Google Self-Driving project as a move to cement Uber’s dominance in the ridesharing industry. Alphabet then decides to compete with Uber on self-driving cars. What followed is Alphabet and Uber exchanging lawsuits where they accuse each other of using stolen technology from the other party. Tesla is also successful in building consumer facing driverless car technology, although the core technology differs (Tesla uses supersonic sensors while Google/Waymo uses LIDAR detection systems.)

Volvo’s self-driving car prototype in association with Uber

 

A shot from a prototype of Tesla’s self-driving car.

The beginning of a successful transition to driverless cars has raised an important question. How will we as humans continue to own our cars? Despite differences in opinions on how the future of cars is going to look like, the resounding answer is that we as humans will continue to own cars individually but, we would observe a tremendous transition to co-ownership schemes which would lead to a reduced cost of ownership. But the most interesting prospect in how we own and operate cars would be for owners to lease out their cars when they are not using it and get paid for that time. If that development happened, the transition to self-driving cars is going to be much faster than the rate at which it is happening right now. Here’s the first step toward an accident-free future.

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