Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Big Read: Robots ready to take the driver's seat

Self-driving cars are the future, not fantasy, says an expert on the technology — and that future isn’t far away
Brad Templeton says that in the future, fewer cars will be owned and more will be rented. Photo / Supplied
Brad Templeton says that in the future, fewer cars will be owned and more will be rented. Photo / Supplied

Dot-com pioneer, futurist and autonomous vehicle expert Brad Templeton says the next transport revolution is close to arriving.

Robo-cars are just around the corner and the auto industry faces a stark choice over the next decade - adapt or die.

"The cars made are going to be different - the companies that figure that out and make cars of the future are going to be the winners and they're going to win quite a lot - the companies that stick to their old ways are going to be the losers."

In trucking alone, the impact on jobs could be massive.

In the US, more than 8 million jobs are directly or indirectly related to the trucking industry. Unlike drivers, robo-trucks can operate around the clock and will not need food, drink and rest at truck stops.

Research by consultants McKinsey & Co has found that 45 per cent of US jobs could be automated by technology that already exists.

This year a convoy of autonomous trucks travelled across Europe, keeping a consistent distance apart and operating more efficiently.

And it's not just land-based transport that is facing a massive shakeup; airlines are also vulnerable.

Canadian-born Templeton says virtual conferencing - using telepresence robots - is reaching a point where long-distance business trips are less necessary.

"It's getting better all the time. It's still primitive by many stretches but it is becoming a substitute for actual travel. I would see a lot less of that going on."

Templeton, who is a keynote speaker at the SingularityU NZ Summit in Christchurch in November, says leisure "travelling" using rapidly improving virtual reality will become more common.

"The virtual experience in a decade from now will be able to create an experience that is very similar to being there and taking in the beauty of a mountain."

But tens of millions of newly enriched actual tourists from China and India would fill the gap.

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On cars, Templeton says there's no one answer to what the car of the future will look like because the vehicles will be tailored to different people's trips.

"If your trip does not involve a highway, it may not be a car capable of the highway. If your trip is up to a mountain cabin, it's more like an SUV, but you never use an SUV to go get a bottle of milk the way we do today."

In the US, where he is based, 80 per cent of journeys and around 45 per cent of the distance are short urban trips, so electric autonomous cars capable of carrying one or two people will be the most common.

They will most likely be about 1.5m wide, narrow enough for two in a lane, and able to park efficiently while waiting.

While the design of vehicles is uncertain, massive change in who owns them is not. Fewer vehicles would be owned by individuals; more would be rented from taxi services. Private owners will be able to rent their cars out through an agency.

Your car drives you to work and when you get to work you push a button and, 'Say go out and make me some money stupid car'.

"Your car drives you to work and when you get to work you push a button and, 'Say go out and make me some money stupid car'."

With what Templeton calls Mobility on Demand, you don't buy a car, you buy rides.

"That's certainly Uber's plan, and is a plan that makes sense for Google, Apple and other no-car companies. But even Daimler, with Car2Go/Car2Come, BMW with DriveNow and GM with Lyft plan to sell you a ride rather than a car, because it's the more lucrative thing to do."

Templeton says pilot projects are likely in Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Shanghai and London.

A survey released this month showed almost three-quarters of US drivers are eager to replace the daily commute's drudgery with a self-driving car and 80 per cent say they would pay extra to have a robot take the wheel.

AlixPartners said that when the 1517 people it surveyed were presented with the attributes of self-driving cars, 73 per cent said they would want autonomous vehicles to take over all their driving needs.

A test convoy of autonomous trucks drives across Europe this year. Photo / Supplied
A test convoy of autonomous trucks drives across Europe this year. Photo / Supplied

Accidents such as the fatal crash of a Tesla on autopilot have been a wake-up call for the industry, but he says it won't slow momentum to develop truly autonomous technology rather than the advanced cruise control in the vehicle in the May 7 smash.

"For investors in Tesla today the biggest question they are interested in is whether they can make enough cars. They're pushing on with it [self-drive technology] and want to make it even more sophisticated."

Templeton is working on a chillybin-size robotic delivery vehicle which will begin operating soon.

The company, Starship Technologies, has already launched pilot programmes in Europe.

"[German company] Hermes, which does traditional package delivery, is very interested in what I think is one of the core values of robot delivery - namely delivery on the recipient's schedule. Today, delivery is done on the schedule of delivery trucks, and you may or may not be home when it arrives. With a personal delivery robot, it will only come when you're home ... Robots don't mind waiting for you.

The virtual experience in a decade from now will be able to create an experience that is very similar to being there and taking in the beauty of a mountain.

"They use a combination of autonomous driving with human control centres able to remotely fix any problems. Robots don't mind pausing if they have a problem and our robots can stop in under 30cm."

He says it could deliver groceries for less than a dollar.

But the Jetsons/Blade Runner vision of flying cars is a bit far-fetched for this futurist.

Templeton says they'd be too noisy and skies would be crowded with drones.

Driverless car trials not far off

Transport Minister Simon Bridges hopes to have driverless vehicle trials in New Zealand before the end of the year.

New Zealand law doesn't prevent autonomous cars and he said talks were under way with manufacturers.

"We're in serious talks with a number of international players including a car manufacturer or two."

The Ministry of Transport had issued guidelines to potential participants in a trial.

"We want to be enabling and see this activity in New Zealand so that when driverless cars are commercially available we're in a position to have the most rapid uptake possible," Bridges says.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges.

In its documents the ministry says New Zealand was a great place to test all forms of technology.

Among its advantages are: our supportive legislation, the ability to test on public roads, a wide range of climate and road conditions in a relatively small area. A particular advantage of testing autonomous vehicles in New Zealand is that our legislation does not explicitly require a vehicle to have a driver present for it to be used on the road. So long as any testing is carried out safely, a truly driverless vehicle may be tested on public roads today.

The Government is also working with Domino's to explore the possibility of testing a small driverless pizza delivery unit.

The payoff

In the US alone, electric robo-cars could enable savings of around:

• 33,000 lives and 1 million injuries - mostly young people, for whom car accidents are a leading cause of death. Over 1 million lives a year around the world.
• US$230b in accident costs - about 2-3% of GDP.
• 50b hours of people's time, around 8% of GDP.
• 189b litres of petrol.
• 600m parking spaces.
• Google, Ford, Tesla, Uber and Apple are developing or participating.

- NZ Herald

Find out more about the SingularityU NZ Summit here.

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