Google’s autonomous car project has disruption in store for automobile drivers. And it threatens disruption and upheaval for automobile manufacturers as well.
Google, let us remind ourselves, has one of the most lucrative businesses ever with a nearly 70% market dominance in internet search engines. Google has a profit margin of about 22% and a nearly $500 billion market capitalization, which is more than triple that of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler combined. GM has a profit margin less than half that of Google’s.
In the world envisioned by Google, drivers won’t just stop driving cars, they will also stop owning them. Fleets of autonomous automobiles will circulate through urban areas, picking up customers when summoned via smart phone, smart watch, or who knows what next. They will get you where you want to be, and move on for the next fare.
The idea is not to sell you a consumer good, but a mobility service. Car ownership would become a hobby for enthusiasts.
Whether Google’s vision of the future will be fully realized or not, autonomous vehicles are coming and the major auto manufacturers know it, which is why they have undertaken their own programs to develop autonomous vehicles.
The uncertainty is not around whether self-driving vehicles will arrive, but when they will arrive. A reasonable guess is that people who are employed as drivers will be losing their jobs by 2020. (This is already happening to taxi drivers through Uber, for different internet-related reasons.) Fully autonomous cars will become available to the general public, probably for an additional $10,000 or so on the purchase price, by 2025 – around the time when Elon Musk (the entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars) lands on Mars. (Yes, that is his goal!)
And if we accept that humans are more error prone than automated systems, all this disruption will result in advances in collision avoidance and road safety. None of us like change, but this is a change we can all applaud.