by Alvaro Abella

As it so often happens, we come across a great many predictions in our job – at the end of the day, we are in the business of investing in the future, whether that be in future technologies, future business models, or applications and services.

A recent headline in one of the e-mail newsletters I receive regularly, however, caught my eye due to both its potential impact and relative unexpectedness (relative, as it was not expected this early in the game!):

“Zoox, an autonomous taxi company, receives $20M in funding.”

Upon further reading, two aspects were eyebrow raisers:

  1. The company is purportedly “developing a fully-automated, electric vehicle fleet and supporting ecosystem […] with a permit from the California DMV for testing on public roads”
  2. A valuation of an eye-popping $1Bn without having a single car on the road

The communiqué from the investor leading this transaction goes on to further elaborate:

“Consistent with this strategy, the Directors believe the Target represents one of the most advanced robotic technologies and applications in the world and its business, when materialised, will change the mode of transportation in the major cities of the world dramatically. It is also predicted that, by 2025, 13% of all vehicles on the road will be autonomous with a worth of US$42 billion, and will reach 25% with a worth of US$77 billion by 2035.”

To many of you reading this, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that several large automotive groups and tech companies are investing heavily in driverless car programs; the media has been buzzing in this space for at least a year now. There’s a good article by CBInsights that does a good job of listing the various groups and their initiatives, from “usual suspects” such as Apple and Google, to the automotive groups, to the challengers in both sectors: Tesla and Uber, and even deep learning companies such as Nvidia. There’s even a car insurance company in the UK – Adrian Flux – that has just launched an insurance policy for self-driving cars!

Like the above investors and corporations, most see driverless cars as transformational and revolutionary for the transportation industry. The question in these types of predictions is usually “how fast will this change take place?”

In a  recent article, Johana Bhuiyan, of Recode online magazine, reviews the potential timeline for this change making a distinction between two potential paths:

  • “evolutionary” (where self-driving features are slowly introduced, as being championed by Tesla, for instance) vs.
  • “revolutionary” (where complete self-driving cars are gradually introduced in test areas until they become mainstream, as proposed by the likes of Google and Zoox).

As Johana concludes, I too believe that these two paths will converge. Whatever the case may be, some of the salient predictions in the Recode article are truly startling:

  1. By the start of the 3rd decade of this century, fully-autonomous vehicles will be introduced and this may have an impact on how cities are redesigned: light detection and radar (lidar) integrated into vehicles, will not only have a continuous mapping of the city, but will continuously learn and adapt to changing traffic and driving conditions. How will we share the space between cars and pedestrians in this “new normal”? Also, how would we call for a vehicle at any given point – would we still need parking garages?
  2. By the start of the 4th decade, manual driving will be ring-fenced to certain areas such as race track or compounds and driving your own car will most likely become a hobby or a luxury.
  3. By 2050, as the auto fleet is completely replaced with fully-autonomous vehicles, no more street-parking would be required (only depots outside city centers, etc.) and drivers will have basically disappeared.

This last prediction (drivers “disappearing”) made me think of the by now much-watched video on the coming automation of jobs, “Humans Need not Apply”, where the authors list the number of jobs in certain industries in the US. In the transportation space, it’s estimated that there are some 3.6 million jobs. Globally, that number rises to 70 million. How many of  these will be replaced by fully-autonomous vehicles (cars, trucks, etc.) is anybody’s guess, but as the authors rightly conclude: it’s not that automation is bad, rather that it’s inevitable.

So are we at the start of the end of human employment in the transportation sector?

Whatever the case may be, once you start seeing those funny looking vehicles with a rotating tower on the roof of the car in droves around Dubai or similar, you’ll know it’s serious as mapping will have started – word around the camp fire is that Dubai will look to introduce fully-autonomous vehicles on certain limited routes by end of 2017.

Yeap, the future has arrived.