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The last driver license holder

Say hello to Liam. He recently celebrated his first birthday. Not only is he a cutie-boy, he is also 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 also could be Sophia or Ethan. This person may live right around the corner of your neighborhood, but one thing is certain: the last person to make a driver license is already born. And the speed of technology development and recent announcements confirm that.

Digital players

The California DMV alone issued licenses for road testing their autonomous technologies to 13 companies. Google alone has 58 test vehicles on the roads across the US, counting for 80 percent of all registered test cars. Google assembled 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 come 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 the Autopilot mode since its roll-out in October last year. And a few days ago Elon Musk announced that Tesla is less than two years from having a complete autonomous car. Uber and Baidu are just two more digital companies that started testing autonomous cars.

The technology is advancing pretty 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. During the 1.6 million miles of road tests 12 accidents occurred with Google vehicles. Only 2 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 players

Traditional automakers who’ve been asleep on the wheel for some time, are now ramping up the efforts with the goal to catch up with those newcomers from the digital industries. More announcements involved BMW revealing that the focus of their i-series shifts to autonomous vehicles. The release to the market is expected in 2021. Honda, Mercedes, Audi, Ford, or GM all test vehicles and frantically acquire technology or enter partnerships, like GM or Fiat. Even suppliers like Bosch got test licenses.

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 through the exponential component than most of us expect.

Other players

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 in the cars built by its partners that include like BMW, Ford, GM, Daimler, Volkswagen, or Volvo by 2020.

Sensor technologies also advance rapidly and prices are dropping. Modern cars come already equipped with hundreds of sensors, including radar, cameras, GPS, or accelerometers. Additionally required sensors such as Lidar are predicted to drop to a few hundred dollars in the next years.

Technology research firm Vision Systems Intelligence listed all companies that provide solutions for or drive autonomous technologies, and the amount of companies is impressive. Over 200 companies work on autonomous driving solutions, and many more will follow, if we extrapolate trends from other hot industries.

Autonomous building blocks solution providersWhile the technological component to make the cars working 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 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 going up for human drivers will quickly change that. Regulations may follow suit and by 2030 manual driven cars may even be outlawed or restricted to closed circuits.

The last driver

Given the facts on those joint efforts and resources spent by those players,  once Liam (or Sophia or Ethan) turns 16 in 2031 will not be required or not even allowed to make 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 also other countries notice.

After all, those developments bring us back to the question what the real task for a car is? Not to give you the ‘joy of driving,’ or ‘freedom’ as car makers had 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. And the biggest competitor for connecting is in our pockets: the smartphone. While in the past teens argued who can be the driver, now they argue who must be the driver. The passengers can stay connected with their smartphones, the driver cannot. The focus is off the connections and on the road. A self-driving car allows everyone to be connected in all modes: virtually and in reality.

And this is why Liam will not really be excited to make the driver license. He will be the last one to take the exam at the DMV. Say hello to Liam.


This article was published first on TechCrunch and is also available in German.