Every so often an innovation comes along that becomes a watershed for the next 100 years. For the 21st Century, this is it.

Staff Writer

Few things are getting as much attention as driverless cars. Google’s Waymo spinoff recently announced that its driverless cars have driven over 3 million miles, rumors are floating about Apple patents for autonomous vehicles and potential play in driverless, Uber and Lyft are both planning driverless fleets, and myriad companies such as NutonomyTorc RoboticsMentorLvl5, and Skymind are all fueling what will be one of the most disruptive innovations of the last 200 years.

Autonomous vehicles (or AVs) will likely be the single greatest opportunity for the creation of value and wealth during the 21st Century. A study, done for Intel by Strategy Analytics, predicted a $7 trillion industry by 2050 making it one of, if not the single largest global industry.

Given the impact AVs will have it’s worth taking the time to understand the facts and to consider how AVs will impact you and your business trust me on this, they will! Yet, much of what we hear and read seems to either border on absurd promises or threats of a dystopian future in which cars are making life and death decisions in a crisis moment about whether to take out a family of four or a little old lady crossing the street in her walker.

So, I’m doing something a bit different with my Inc column this month. During September I’m going to run a series on autonomous vehicles, drawing on interviews I’ve had with CEOs of AV companies and developers of AV technology, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy groups, first hand accounts with AVs, and excerpts from a new 2018 book I’m wrapping up, Revealing The Invisible: How Our Hidden Behaviors Are Becoming The Most Valuable Commodity Of The 21st Century.

The intent with this series of articles is to provide a realistic view of how AVs will evolve, the obstacles they face, and the dramatic changes they will bring.

So, lets start with the problem that AVs are trying to solve.

The Facts

There is no way that we can support 10 billion people with the same sort of vehicle infrastructure and culture we have today.

The automobile is part of the fabric of the modern world. We build an intense cultural and personal bond with our vehicles. They define a person’s identity. They are also the backbone of commerce. As an industry, vehicle manufacturing is large enough to represent the equivalent of the world’s sixth largest economy, employing over 50 million people and producing nearly 100 million vehicles each year. Yet, there is simply no way that we can support a global population reaching 10 billion people with the same sort of vehicle infrastructure we have today. Our cars remain idle 90% of the time. There’s no other individual asset nearly as expensive to own that gets that little utilization.

Vehicle’s account for 1.3 million deaths each year.

That places them as the 10th leading cause of death globally and the only non-disease related cause in the top 10. If you adjust for the fact that there are only one billion vehiclesglobally, as opposed to the fact that all seven billion people are subject to the other 9 risk factors, you could make the claim that vehicles are the leading cause of death for those who own or interact with an automobile.

Automobiles have a strained relationship with an aging population.

Few of us have not had to deal with the very hard conversation, or worse yet unilateral decision, of taking the car keys away from a parent. The automobile is perhaps one of the greatest statements of independence in modern society. When it’s taken away it takes with it not just the license to drive but the license to live a full life. According the AAA seniors are outliving their ability to drive by 7-10 years on average. This will be you soon enough.

Autonomous vehicles are going to be a watershed moment in our acceptance of artificial intelligence.

Once we feel safe enough in an AV to transition from driver to passenger, and have experienced its ability to transport us faster, keep us safer, and understand our behaviors better than we can ourselves A.I. will have arrived. There’s no doubt in my mind that the AV will be the proof point and the watershed moment for AI’s acceptance.

The impact of vehicles on global pollution and climate change.

And lastly, let’s not forget the impact of vehicles on global pollution and climate change. According to a study by NASA vehicles are the single largest contributor to climate change. Today transportation contributes more to greenhouse emission than the entire energy sector of the US economy. 26% of greenhouse gases come from vehicles. Even without moving to electric vehicles the reductions that come from the efficiency of AVs in terms of their ability to communicate with each other (V2V – Vehicle to Vehicle)) and infrastructure (V2I – Vehicle to Infrastructure) would eliminate traffic congestion and the need for street lights.

When you consider all of these factors converging it’s impossible not to believe that it’s just a matter of time until AVs are an essential part of our world. Does that mean that there aren’t technical, cultural, social, and even ethical obstacles ahead? Of course not! This is likely to be one of the most profound transformations we will experience in our lifetime. But it’s also likely to be one of the messiest as hundreds of companies race to bring AVs to market, regulators try to set standards, and driver learn how to become passengers.

In my next column we’ll look at some of those challenges through the eyes of experts in the industry who are driving (an unavoidable pun) the evolution of autonomous vehicles. And more specifically at how we define what an autonomous really means.

Stick with me, it’s going to be a fun ride!