Self-driving cars could change your life within six years


busTony Seba, Stanford lecturer, author and self-described thought leader, is not one to prognosticate lightly.

Seba — a “chief disruptor” with over 20 years experience in venture capital, business entrepreneurship and clean energy technologies — has a message for commuters tired of traffic jams.

Seba predicts that by 2024, the whole concept of individually owned cars will be obsolete. The internal combustion engine will cease to be competitive with electric motors.

Car dealerships will cease to exist. Global demand for oil will plummet, and so will its price. And by 2030, 95 per cent of US auto miles will be travelled by autonomous, on-demand electric vehicles.

The automotive and oil industries as we now know them will collapse.

Seba calls this new paradigm Transport as a Service, or TAAS. Essentially, you’re going to use the car like you do today, but, as with existing ride-hailing or car-sharing services, vehicles will be booked or hailed through an app.

Cost-conscious consumers will be able to carpool, halving or quartering their transport costs.

And he predicts that this shift — from ownership to access — will be quite orderly as revolutions go.

History is littered with examples of innovations not catching on despite technological superiority or greater utility.

The Iron Age had functioning water mills, Da Vinci the helicopter, Nikolai Tesla his direct current motor, Toshiba the HD DVD.

For Seba, the advent of the autonomous electric vehicle has an edge that these did not: it is drastically cheaper.

A Toyota Corolla costs about an eighth of the amount of a Tesla Model S, but thinking in terms of one-off purchases is irrelevant to TAAS: for a fleet of autonomous vehicles the key factors are cost per kilometre travelled and lifetime of post-sale use.

In the RethinkX model, efficiencies in battery storage and the viability of vehicle artificial intelligence are assumed, and leave the customers of the near future with a clear decision.

The average American household spends $10,000 on car upkeep per year — a figure Seba reckons would be cut by 90 per cent under TAAS.

“People love cars — but those same people love money more,” Seba says.

Australia ‘should be competitive’ in autonomous vehicles

South Perth, Darwin and New South Wales, have all trialled or started trials of autonomous vehicles.

“It’s a space where we should be competitive,” Travis Waller, director of the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation at the University of New South Wales, says.

“Google Maps started here. The software that runs signalised intersections was designed here in the 70s.”

Professor Waller also believes the TAAS model is coming, though he’s doubtful about Seba’s world-changing timeframe. Most manufacturers, he says, are targeting 2025 for autonomous deployment.

“They’re looking more at campus environments, or airports,” Professor Waller says.

Well-mapped environments, in other words, with relatively low traffic loads.

“But completely autonomous, and completely functional,” he says.

Autonomous systems still struggle with irregular interactions — such as cyclists — and Professor Waller suggests they’re likely to be deployed in a more limited capacity, at least at first.

“In Sydney or in New York, or in San Francisco, or in Tokyo — owning an automobile is really not even logical if you’re in certain areas of those cities,” he says.

There’s public transport, for one thing. Parking is expensive and rare.

But Mr Ramsay is not convinced by the prospect of a revolution within the next decade.

“I think all things in automotive move glacially,” he says.

There’s a slide that Seba likes to start his lectures with: a black and white photo of an Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

The year is 1900, and the scene is flush with suited revellers. What’s most striking is what isn’t there: cars. Instead, the avenue is filled with horses.

In a few short years — and to the disbelief of many — the Model T Ford went into production and livestock became a rarity in the city.

“The same things were said back then that are now being said about cars,” Seba says.