The Winners & Losers In An Era of Autonomous Vehicles

Self driving technology is surging forward. . . but not everybody wins

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are coming, whether you like it or not. Across the US, car companies are teaming up with tech giants to improve on self driving capabilities, fine tuning the software needed to enable its mainstream adoption. Technology is about making our lives easier, which is exactly what autonomous vehicles aim to do. But as with every major technological shift, there are both winners and losers. As we accelerate into the AV era, who’s at risk of being left behind?

Autonomous vehicles for societal good

Driving a car is almost synonymous with independence. Those who can’t drive due to medical, financial or age related issues can be left isolated and immobile. Some might have people they can rely on, a penchant for public travel, or shares in Uber. . . but access to taxi services and decent transportation are far from ubiquitous. Add autonomous vehicles into the mix and things begin to change quickly. For those who don’t want to actually own an AV, companies like Uber and Lyft will offer a ride hailing alternative that could be cheaper. Sounds great, right? . . . Unfortunately, there’s another side to the story. . .

In an article for Automotive News, former Vice Chair of General Motors Bob Lutz suggested that car ownership would be wiped out in the next few decades. The issue is that for some people, being without their cars could mean the difference between earning a wage and frequenting a food bank. AVs won’t be available to everyone straight away, no matter how much money they save further down the line. The anti-lock braking systems that are a standard part of today’s cars, for example, were a luxury feature in the 1980s. As AVs replace human driven models, the transitional period could leave low earners stranded. It doesn’t exactly bode well that the marketing campaigns for future travel options are clearly targeted at affluent, financially secure consumers.

So, on the one hand autonomous vehicles could be life changing for elderly, economically marginalised people or those with disabilities. On the other, it certainly won’t be good news for everyone. Various businesses, for example, rely on the existence of human driven cars. What happens to these companies once AVs rule the roads?

Driven to disruption

The winners in the AV era will be, in short, the companies that provide the most competitive services and the consumers who can afford them. But any service or business that generates revenue from established driver habits won’t just be disrupted by autonomous vehicles – they could be entirely wiped out. Many of these changes will transform infrastructure. . . Take car parks, for instance. If you can hail a car from a fleet of available vehicles which drops you at your intended destination, there’s little need for parking. There’s also no point in waiting around for an expensive taxi. This is why Uber, Lyft, and a plethora of auto companies have been systematically ‘autonomising’ themselves, or in other words, jumping before they’re pushed.

Then there are the motels, service stations and roadside cafés that make their money from drivers in need of a coffee or a snooze. If you’re not driving, you won’t need to stop for a nap. This same problem has surfaced with autonomous trucking, damaging entire microeconomies that rely on tired and hungry truckers for business. Although service stations are unlikely to disappear entirely, a reduced amount of customers could have a devastating effect on business and employment in this sector. The number of café workers and hotel staff would be drastically reduced to match demand. Additionally, of course, there are the taxi drivers who work for traditional car hailing companies. That’s another entire profession essentially wiped out.

It could take a few years, a decade, or more, but the driverless future is beginning. In many ways, it appears to be inherently benevolent. Providing a cheaper alternative to car ownership, enabling mobility, and giving non-drivers the ability to travel independently are just a few of the benefits. But any business – or any person – that depends on existing transport models has a hard road ahead of them. At the most extreme end of the scale, they could find themselves without a customer base. Hopefully, regulatory bodies will encourage gradual adoption to accommodate both early enthusiasts and laggards, giving businesses a crucial period of adjustment. Unfortunately, some hefty sacrifices will have to be made.

Which other businesses could be affected by the expansion of autonomous vehicles? Will AVs kill roadside services? How far will self driving fleets enable social mobility? Share your thoughts and opinions.