November 5, 2018 Innovation Chapel

Who’s driving the Autonomous Car?

In 1962, General Motors installed UNIMATE, the first industrial robot to be used by a major manufacturer in its New Jersey plant. On balance, the installation was deemed a success and the automotive industry was changed for ever. Since then more and more tasks in industry have been automated to produce more things, better and with less risk of injury. But what happens when things in your regular life become automated? Things like driving your car?

From horseback to modern motorised vehicles, the freedom offered through personal mobility, be it a horse, a push bike or a car, speaks to something deep in the human psyche.

So if the Autonomous car doesn’t deliver on a need in the market, i.e a human need, then what is driving its development?

The car manufacturers themselves are certainly buying in to this development. In 2016, GM spent $581 million to acquire self-driving car start-up, Cruise Automation. Since then they have announced the construction of a new R&D facility for Cruise Automation and adding 1,100 new jobs, with more potential investments in the pipe line to the tune of $500 million plus. Ford and Honda have similar plans. 

Yet, in a recent study by the American Automotive Association (AAA), it was clear that around 73% of Americans would be afraid to ride in an Autonomous Car. That figure was up 67 percent from 2017. Even in the Millenial segment, 67% say they would not ride in an Autonomous Car.

So if its not driven by market, then what?

More than 1200 Australians have died in traffic accidents in 2018 to date. Self-driving cars have the potential to bring that number way down. Deloitte, in an official recommendation to the insurance industry, estimate that ‘sensor-loaded cars’ are poised to reduce accidents by 90 percent. And it’s hard to argue with that.

But at the same time, its also hard to shake the feeling that when so many aspects of our lives are an exercise in conformity, driving is one of the last activities where we have control. Yes, you can argue that we don’t exercise it in the commute to and from work, but there is a difference between driving and being delivered. Cars don’t simply transport people to their destination. Cars offer us a freedom and control that allows us to entertain a very human need to explore.

And here is the crux of the problem. Automation is possible as the next step in technological advancement, but how will it effect us as human beings? In some cases it will free us, but it also has the ability to rob us of what it is to be human. And if we as customers are not driving the development of automation, then who is and to what end? And where will it leave us.

Photo by Alex Zabavsky on Unsplash

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