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Autonomous Vehicles - What Next? (Posted by Alex Schey of Vantage Power)

Tue, 08 September 2015

From Tesla’s Model S sedan to Daimler’s Freightliner truck, the race is clearly on.
The driverless vehicle wave is about to crest as automotive manufacturers start testing – and in some cases selling – vehicles with increasingly autonomous capabilities in the wake of supportive legislation, exponential growth in machine learning algorithms and the required processing power. 

Does this present opportunity for budding young entrepreneurs and start-ups? Almost certainly yes.  The automotive market is undergoing a fundamental shift, made even larger by the possibilities afforded by electric and hybrid technology – and this creates fertile ground for creative ideas to take hold.

However, selling to automotive manufacturers is a tough market to crack for a variety of reasons, not least razor thin profit margins, intense competition and legislation compliance. When looking at autonomous vehicles, I’m inclined to think that small companies have a higher likelihood of success when looking beyond the vehicle and imagining the products and services a driverless world will require.

Let’s conduct a quick thought experiment by imagining that in 5-10 years time an appreciable percentage of our cars are able to drive themselves around. Given that I picked up a parking fine a couple of days ago, my first thought is that when my car drops me off at wherever I’m going, it doesn’t need to park where I am – and risk a ticket – it can drive off and park somewhere else. Imagine a few hundred thousand cars doing this at the same time – the concept of parking will fundamentally change forever. Not convinced that there’s a market here? National Car Parks Ltd. (NCP) own 150,000 parking spaces across the UK and last year they turned over £200m. Other public and private spaces around the country dwarf NCP’s number by at least an order of magnitude. There will be large opportunities here for those that can spot them.

My next thought is now that my car has disappeared off to park, it sits there for about 90% of the day – quite a waste, no? Given that it’s autonomous, why isn’t it picking up other people and shuttling them around, earning a bit of money? This concept of vehicle sharing – be it autonomous or traditional – is not new, but I’d be prepared to bet that there are products and services around this very novel method of personal transportation that have yet to be exploited or even thought about. Who becomes responsible for service and maintenance? In fact, what does a service and maintenance infrastructure look like for a fleet of autonomous vehicles? Who cleans the vehicles’ interiors? How does insurance work? Whatever the answers are, I’m certain it doesn’t involve doing things the same way we’ve been doing them for the last 100 years.

If it’s fair to say that cars will be autonomous, it’s almost certain that vans and trucks will go the same way too. How will parcels and goods be delivered in the future? Will there still be someone ringing your doorbell to bring in your online order of groceries, or will there be an entirely new concept? Will some of these packages be delivered by airborne drone? If so, where will these aircraft land and recharge/refuel?

For some, this vision represents a hyper-efficient utopia where congestion, pollution and accidents are reduced to near zero by removing the human-error factor. For others, the idea that millions of taxi, van and truck drivers could be put out of work is a shocking reminder of the potential social consequences of ever-increasing technology.

In 1841, 22% of the UK’s workforce was directly involved in agriculture, already a massive reduction over the pre-Industrial Revolution era. With widespread implementation of new technologies, from tractors to enhanced fertilisers, that figure stands at less than 1% of the population today. What we saw was a massive shift in the population’s skills, initially to the manufacturing industries, and then later into the service economy when manufacturing declined from the 1980s onwards.

Given this example, and countless others throughout history, are we looking at vast unemployment or the opportunity to completely retrain, reskill and modernise our workforce? I hope and expect the latter. However, this requires innovative thinking and creative new business models. It definitely won’t be easy – the cutting edge of technology often inflicts many casualties on ambitious start-ups – but opportunity in the rapidly evolving mobility sector is most definitely there!
 
About Alex Schey (CEO and co-founder of Vantage Power)
 
Alex is the CEO and co-founder of Vantage Power, a company started in 2011 to develop and commercialise a retrofit hybrid system for buses, an ambassador for the UK’s Make it in Great Britain “30 Under 30” campaign, and founder of Racing Green Endurance – a project which built the world’s longest range electric car and set a world first by driving it down the 26,000km Pan-American Highway in 2010.
 
With a passion for inspiring the next generation of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs, Alex has given over 50 speeches at schools, universities and museums including six Institute of Engineering and Technology lectures, two TEDx talks, a 4-day outreach programme at the London Science Museum, a lecture at the Royal Institution, and a keynote presentation at the SAE Motors Symposium, Detroit. Alex was also voted one of London’s “25 under 25” by The Evening Standard in 2013.

Vantage Power won the Shell Springboard national award in 2013.
 
Find out more about Vantage Power, or follow them on Twitter.