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The revolution onboard the driverless car

The vanishing of the driver is only the most striking aspect of the technological breakthrough that is being prepared: the traditional industries will get in crisis, but new business opportunities will arise, together with new possibilities in social and environmental terms.

18 Oct 2016

“We are on the verge of a second revolution of individual mobility. My grandfather made the first, we are now faced with an even more important change that affects not only the way we move, but even all forms of transport, and all this must be done in a very short time”. To say that, on Corriere della Sera, is Bill Ford, grandson of the founder of the famous American automaker. The revolution referred to by his words is that of the driverless car that, day after day is taking its shape after a long period of skepticism and disbelief.

If a car manufacturer such as Ford, cautious as centenarians should be, has decided to develop its own driverless model, it means that the rush to get on the future car, is really begun. The vanishing of the human driver is the element that most striking, perhaps the scariest one, suitable for science-fiction fantasies. Alerts caused by the fatal accident on board of a Tesla last July, are just media excitement hiding that fear for anything new, typical of any social entity. The real battle is for a product completely different from the vehicles that we used to know and as a result, business models that will not be the traditional ones of the automotive industry. The impact of the smart car will be general: it will create difficulties for industries of collateral services, with insurance at the top, but will generate new business opportunities, as evidenced by the many startups that are emerging especially in the US.

The future is speeding up, and not just for the technological boost. News of this summer. Volvo partnered with Uber shattered every competitor, delivering to the end of August its fleet of taxis without taxi drivers on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly Uber had acquired just before the startup “Otto”, which is developing a system for unmanned trucks. Audi has teamed up with Asian digital leader Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent to work on the digitization of mobility. Ford has announced that by 2021 will produce its electric model, in series and without driver. Five years from now seem so distant future?

The events related to the driverless car are emblematic of an optical defect that blocks innovation in many industries and is likely to produce only the crisis: to mismatch what we see through the window with what’s on the horizon. You’re looking at the rainbow with its infinite shades of colors and opportunity but do not see it, you stop to only look at the fly crashed on the glass. By doing so you cannot have the vision required to decide and face the necessary transformation. It was so (and still is, unfortunately, in many cases) for many companies resistant to change and open innovation. It has been so for nearly all automakers which have first denied the possibility to change, then mocked it and now, under the pressure of new competitors such as Google and Uber, are trying to make up lost ground.

“We are changing from car company to mobility company”, says the CEO of Ford Mark Fields, highlighting the true extraordinary meaning of the ongoing revolution. It is not only to create new more or less performing models with new more or less sexy accessories. The technology pushes toward a redefinition of the scope and business models. Let’s forget for a moment the driverless car and look at the progress of Mercedes in recent years. At first the car sharing with car2go, now an European brand. Then MyTaxi, applying Uber business model to taxi. Sharing cars or make an app for taxi drivers until recently would have been considered crazy and insane for automakers cars. But it is less and less if trying to understand that the business is not to sell plastic boxes with four wheels and an engine, but rather mobility services, with social impacts that are difficult to understand by limiting the vision to “wow effect” of the connected car, which will then become driverless.

Let’s think about how long the cars, used to go to work, stay still. If they were connected and able to move by themselves they could be shared with those who need to move when we are sitting at our desk. According to Carlo Ratti leading the Senseable City Lab at MIT, only 20% of cars on the road are really necessary. What impact would have leave on the roads only those who really need? The obvious answer explains why, for example, the German government is specifically pushing in this direction: in the next four years an investment of 80 million euro will occur.

The great technological revolutions are those that go beyond the technology and challenge the whole relationship systems. Starting from the vehicle owned by a private property that could be made available for a public service so as to allow the most efficient use possible, thanks to artificial intelligence. “Even traffic lights will be no longer necessary”, said Ratti. “Because the vehicles “talking to” each other will be able to regulate the traffic flow and avoid unnecessary waiting time”. We wish we could abolish traffic lights …

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