Say hello to Liam. He recently celebrated his first birthday. Not only is he a cutie, he is the last person to get a driver license.
Impossible? Not in your lifetime?
I admit: I don’t know if Liam will be the last person to get a driver license. It could be Sophia or Ethan. This person may live right around the corner in your neighborhood. But one thing is certain: The last person to get a driver license is already born — the speed of technology development and recent announcements confirm that.
The California DMV alone issued to 13 companies licenses for road testing autonomous technologies. Google alone has 58 test vehicles on roads across the U.S., counting for 80 percent of all registered test cars. Google has accumulated an impressive 1.6 million autonomously driven miles, adding between 10,000 and 15,000 miles every week. In total, this counts for 90 percent of all test miles driven in California. Added to that are 3 million simulated miles every day, according to Google’s January report.
Tesla, on the other hand, revealed that their customers have driven more than 100 million miles in Autopilot mode since its roll-out in October last year. And Elon Musk recently announced that Tesla is less than two years away from having a complete autonomous car. Uber and Baidu are just two more digital companies that started testing autonomous cars.
The technology is advancing rapidly. Given the overall number of miles driven and comparing them with the number of accidents, the cars are already as safe as human drivers: 12 accidents occurred with Google vehicles during the 1.6 million miles of road tests, and only two of them were the fault of the Google cars. The cars had an incident every 133,000 miles; this is on par with reported and non-reported human accidents with property damage.
Traditional automakers who’ve been asleep at the wheel for some time are now ramping up their efforts with the goal to catch up with those newcomers from the digital industries. Honda, Mercedes, Audi, Ford and GM all have test vehicles and are frantically acquiring technology or entering into partnerships like GM and Fiat. Even suppliers like Bosch got test licenses. Additionally, announcements involving BMW revealed that the focus of their i-series is shifting to autonomous vehicles; the release to the market is expected in 2021.
Singularity plays out
Following Ray Kurzweil’s statement on Singularity, we will see exponential acceleration in the development of the required digital power and intelligence of self-driving car AI. Conservative expectations that draw from past linear experiences may be coming faster than most of us expect through the exponential component.
AUTOSAR, an automotive system architecture for standardizing automotive electronic control units, is expected to have in its 2018 release version 4.4 everything included for autonomous driving. This system standard is expected to be included by 2020 in the cars built by its partners, including BMW, Ford, GM, Daimler, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Sensor technologies are also advancing rapidly, and prices are dropping. Modern cars are equipped with hundreds of sensors, including radar, cameras, GPS and accelerometers. Additionally required sensors such as Lidar are predicted to drop to a few hundred dollars in the next few years.
Technology research firm Vision Systems Intelligence listed all the companies that provide solutions for or drive autonomous technologies; the amount of companies is impressive. More than 200 companies work on autonomous driving solutions and — if we extrapolate trends from other hot industries — many more will follow.
Manually driven cars may even be outlawed or restricted to closed circuits.
While the technological components to make the cars work and safe are crucial, insurance companies and regulatory agencies could become drivers for rapid adoption. Given that 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error, the expected lower accident rate with self-driving cars may make insurance costs for human-driven cars prohibitively expensive. Although a majority of drivers today are still skeptical about handing over control to a machine, experiencing a self-driving car for themselves and seeing insurance rates go up for human drivers will quickly change that. Regulations may follow suit; by 2030, manually driven cars may even be outlawed or restricted to closed circuits.
The last driver
Given the facts of these joint efforts and the resources spent by major players, once Liam (or Sophia or Ethan) turns 16 in 2031, they will not be required or even allowed to get a driver license. Especially when we consider the dismal driving record of their age group. And they may not want to do it anyways. The Department of Transportation shows declining rates of driver license holders among teenagers, a trend that other countries also notice.
All those developments bring us back to the question: What is the real task for a car? Not to give you the “joy of driving,” or “freedom” as car makers have been telling us. Cars are also not solving a mobility or transportation problem. Cars are connectors. They help us connect with other people, with places and with goods. However, the biggest competitor for connecting is in our pockets: the smartphone.
While in the past teens argued about who can be the driver, now they argue about who must be the driver. The passengers can stay connected with their smartphones, the driver cannot (the driver must focus on the road). A self-driving car allows everyone to be connected in all modes: virtually and in reality.
And this is why Liam (or Sophia or Ethan) will not really be excited to get a driver license, and will be the last one to take the exam at the DMV.
This article was published first on TechCrunch.