Fully autonomous vehicles can solve congestion, save lives and even alter property prices – but they will also mean the end of many jobs as we know them.
Transport and urban planning expert Simon Ginn says autonomous vehicles are far closer to hitting our roads than many people think, and there’s no doubt that when that happens there will be both winners and losers.
“All the major car manufacturers in the world expect they will deliver an autonomous vehicle to the general public by 2020,” he says.
“Some of them think it will be a little earlier, but none think it will be later. They’re all competing against each other, so none want to miss out. 2020 seems to be the benchmark.
“The estimates are that by 2040 to 2050, 75% to 80% of all vehicles will be driverless.”
It’s not just cars that are receiving the sci-fi treatment – in all likelihood, autonomous trucks will hit the roads first, judging by Rio Tinto’s fleet of 69 three-storey high autonomous trucks already rumbling across the red dirt of the Pilbara.
Of course, the relevant legislation needs to be in place before driverless cars and trucks start appearing on our roads en masse, but with dollar-driven companies seeing the benefits of a never sleeping, mistake-free workforce, there’s little doubt that this technology is just around the corner.
Ginn spoke about autonomous vehicles and their impact on fleet operations and maintenance in Brisbane last week at IPWEA’s Australasian Fleet Conference, 23-25 May.
“I personally believe this driverless car environment is going to change society,” he says.
“The railway system opened up communities 150 to 200 years ago, then the car came along in the 1950s and started to really open up suburbia. I think the driverless car is going to really change the way people live.”
First, the good
Unlike mere mortals, driverless cars don’t require a minimum following distance between vehicles. This means three driverless cars can fit comfortably into the space needed for one vehicle with a driver.
“Every lane of a motorway or freeway coming into a typical Australian city can accommodate 2000 vehicles per lane, per hour. With driverless cars coming in, that could creep up to 6000,” Ginn says.
Which begs the questions: if you can get more out of one lane that you currently have, why build more lanes, or more roads? In Ginn’s opinion, driverless cars will solve some of the need to build more major roads.
“I don’t think we’re going to see many new major roads into our cities,” Ginn says.
“About 10 years from now, one of the lanes on major roads will be allocated for driverless cars and trucks. That’s going to have implications for fleet management, garbage collection, maintenance, street lighting – the list goes on.”
The way Ginn sees it, riding in an autonomous vehicle won’t require a licence. This opens up a world where the driverless car can drop the kids off at school while Mum and Dad make their own way to work, reducing the school drop-off and pick-up traffic that can cripple cities.
For vulnerable members of society, driverless cars will mean freedom.
“People who have access issues or various medical conditions will now be able to have access to a car, and they don’t have to depend on the taxi service or relatives,” Ginn says.
For young families and couples struggling to get a foothold in the city property market, driverless cars will open up areas further and further away from CBDs.
“This technology is going to change the way the world evolves, and it’s going to change the property market,” Ginn says.
“In Sydney for example, a lot of younger couples and younger families will be able to buy a home way out at the Blue Mountains, because on the way to work they can sit back, have a sleep or read a paper.”
Ginn also imagines a scenario where city workers can catch a driverless car or bus to the station, and then transfer to high-speed rail.
Retirees could also take advantage of this – those who fear to live too far away from hospitals would be more comfortable spending their twilight years away from the city if they could get to medical appointments quickly and easily.
“Twenty years on from now, you could find that the Sydney property market may not have such an exorbitantprice,because
people can live much further out of the city so there won’t be such a demand on the inner areas of Sydney,” Ginn explains.
Ginn also expects that driverless cars will make a massive impact on not just the death toll from road accidents, but on what is sometimes called the ‘hidden road toll’; people who have been maimed and psychologically scarred by road trauma.
And, we’re probably going to be surprised by how affordable these high-tech machines will be.
“Most of these driverless cars are going to be electric,” Ginn explains.
“Electric cars require mainly an electric transmission, so they’re not going to have all the components that a petrol or diesel car has. It’s a much more efficient transmission, and it’s a much cheaper production.”
Now, the bad
It’s easy to get carried away by the promise of slick, smart transport. But the reality is that driverless cars are going to be muscling many, many people out of jobs – starting with taxi drivers.
“In 20 years from now, I’m confident that driveable taxis will hardly exist,” Ginn says.
“It’s going to be major – there’s been talk in the US and in China that millions of people in the transport industry are going to lose their jobs in the long-term and need to retrain.”
Traditional bus drivers’ jobs could also be at risk.
“I think the bus driver is going to be another big question – does the bus driver continue to exist the way we know it?” Ginn asks. “There’s not going to be the numbers of drivers driving buses, there’s going to be more driverless and minibuses picking up people.”
As previously mentioned, the majority of autonomous vehicles will be electric. This means mechanics will need to reskill accordingly.
“Mechanics are going to need to be much more of computer and electronic specialists. It’s quite a different world we’re heading to – eventually, batteries will be powerful enough to drive trucks. It’s just a matter of ability to store the power, but over time that will be resolved,” Ginn says.
There are also huge implications for the fleet industry, although Ginn stresses that any changes to come will be gradual.
“There is going to be a benefit to council organisations, but there’s also going to be a need to re-skill staff. They may no longer need the numbers of drivers, or they only need drivers to help unload or load equipment, so there’s going to be implications for employment and retraining,” he says.
“There’s a lot of fleet implications; people in the fleet industry who are drivers will likely be reskilled on how to reschedule vehicles better. But what we’ll find is that a lot of jobs won’t be replaced as staff leave or retire.”
The other group Ginn sees being replaced are independent trucking companies.
“I think we’re going to find that is going to cease quite quickly, and I think they won’t be able to afford to compete,” he says.
“Currently, the regulations are that if you want to drive from Melbourne to Brisbane, that’s a journey that can be done in 18 hours, but you’ll have to take an eight-hour break. A lot of these one-man operations can do Melbourne to Brisbane in about 26 hours.”
Compare that to a driverless truck that can do the trip in 18 or 19 hours allowing for a refuelling stop, and the implications are clear.
“There’s no question about it, companies will drive [the transition to driverless vehicles]. It’s been quoted that a typical truck in the US that goes from New York to Los Angeles, it costs about $4500 to run the truck, and 75% of that cost is labour. So, from a commercial point of view, suddenly you can do that trip for $1200 dollars,” Ginn says.
“Reskill,” he says.
“For people in the fleet industry who are in the early to middle part of their career, I think they’re going to need to reskill to know how to help control computers to automate these vehicles.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to mean someone going into fleet operations in their early 20s, they need to think seriously about what their job’s going to look like when they’re 50 because it is going to be a very different world.”